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Dueling marches in Venezuela as deadly crisis continues

Heurts entre forces de l'ordre et opposants au président vénézuélien Nicolas Maduro, le 18 mai 2017 à Caracas
FEDERICO PARRA (AFP)

On one hand, red pro-government caps, on the other, the colors of the Venezuelan flag: sympathizers and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro hit the streets Saturday in a tense standoff on the 50th day of violent protests.

Several thousand anti-government protesters gathered in the main Caracas avenues carrying signs that read "#We are millions against the dictatorship" and "#No more dictatorship!" 

"It's been 50 days of protests. I'm here with my two children, I can't get any milk, I can't get any food," said Mariangel, a 24-year-old businesswoman. She had the red, blue and yellow colors of the Venezuelan flag painted on her face.

Also present: young men carrying makeshift shields of wood and metal, and wearing hoods and gas masks.

"We have to stay in the streets 50 or 100 more days, whatever it takes for Maduro to accept early elections or for him to leave," said 21-year-old student Antonio Moreno. 

He wore a safety helmet and carried a home-made shield for protection against tear gas canisters and blasts from water cannons.

"We're going to fight to get out of this dictatorship!" an angry woman screamed in a megaphone as she rallied protesters.

Maduro's opponents expressed confidence that the march on Caracas's main motorway will surpass that of April 19, the largest so far in seven weeks of demonstrations that have left 47 people dead, hundreds injured, 2,200 detained and some 161 imprisoned by military tribunals.

But Maduro has his supporters, too. On the other side of town pro-government workers sang and danced as they prepared to show their support for the president's controversial plan for a constitutional assembly. Maduro is set to welcome the workers at the Miraflores presidential palace.

Venezuela is bitterly divided, as locals bridle under chronic shortages of food and medicine, soaring inflation rates -- prices could rise by 720 percent this year, the IMF estimates -- and some of the world's highest crime rates.

Increasing violence 

As protests have turned violent an increasing number of gunshot wounds have been reported. Federal prosecutors said they are investigating the role of police and military personnel in the incidents.

Some of the shootings took place in Tachira state, near the border with Colombia, where Maduro this week deployed 2,600 soldiers after riots and looting.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said that one of his lawyers delivered a report on the crisis Friday to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, after Venezuelan officials "canceled" Capriles's passport, preventing him from flying to New York.

Protests have swelled since Maduro called for convening a "popular" assembly to re-write the Venezuelan constitution, with half its members coming from sectors loyal to him.

The opposition says the assembly would allow Maduro to avoid elections. He denies this and has "guaranteed" that presidential elections will be held next year, as required by law.

Guevara said that if Maduro proceeds with his plan, it will mean the "final stage" of his government.

"The people will paralyze the country," he said.

Maduro insisted Friday that the "popular" assembly would provide a "path to peace, dialogue and consensus," while the opposition, he said, was offering only "violence and death."

Loyal military

Analysts say the opposition's biggest challenge will be to keep their marches peaceful.

Protests succeed only when they are massive and persistent, said Luis Vicente Leon, who heads the Datanalisis polling firm. He warned that when demonstrations turn violent, they "lose impact."

Seven in 10 Venezuelans reject Maduro's leadership, according to private surveys, amid widespread economic devastation aggravated by the drop in the prices of oil -- Venezuela's chief revenue source -- in 2014.

That has left Maduro heavily dependent on the support of the military.

Opposition protests grew after the country's Supreme Court on March 30 assumed some of the functions of the National Assembly.

In Washington, Organization of American States (OAS) head Luis Almagro said Saturday that the only way to solve the Venezuelan crisis is for the country to immediately hold general elections.

It is time for "definitive negotiations to agree on terms to reestablish democracy" in Venezuela, Almagro said in a video message.

The high number of fatalities during the protests is the result of "a regime that obstinately refuses to recognize that the only viable exit from the crisis ... is to hold general elections now."

(AFP)

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