CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans braced Saturday for the possibility of more political violence as supporters and opponents of the government of President Nicolas Maduro planned competing rallies in a bitterly divided country.
In major cities across the country, people awoke to smoldering barricades of trash and debris in some streets but no reports of major overnight incidents. The capital was largely peaceful as the two main factions made their way to gathering points for the rallies, with supporters of Maduro, many in the red T-shirts and matching baseball caps for the color of his party.
A banner across the stage at the pro-government rally proclaimed it as a demonstration of “women against fascist violence,” reflecting Maduro’s oft-repeated allegation that the protests of recent days are part of a right-wing effort to oust his socialist government. The largely female crowd was festive, packing a plaza as they danced to live music and waved flags.
On the other side of the city, the opposition gathered for a march across major avenues expected to start later in the day in concert with gatherings elsewhere in the country. “If we stay in the streets they will finally understand what we want,” said Juan Altimari, a journalism student and protest leader.
In San Cristobal, a remote city on the western border that has experienced some of the most violent clashes between protesters and National Guard troops, thousands of people were marching peacefully, many criticizing the high crime, food shortages and inflation that has made life difficult for many in a country that once had one of the highest standards of living in South American thanks to its massive oil reserves.
“This is a rich country and we can’t even buy a kilo of flour, a rich country but we live in misery,” Marta Rivas, a 39-year-old mother of two, said as she joined thousands of protesters in the opposition stronghold city of San Cristobal.
The competing rallies come after more than a week of turmoil in Venezuela, starting with huge opposition marches across the country on Feb. 12 that ended in violence that left three people dead, two from the opposition and one on the government side.
Authorities blamed prominent opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez for fomenting the violence and have jailed him on charges that include arson and incitement, prompting anger from his supporters at home and criticism from abroad.
At least eight people have died and more than 100 have been injured in violence connected to the protests. The opposition has accused the National Guard as well as armed militia groups of attacking protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds, with deadly results.
Maduro has said that evidence shows that in at least one highly publicized death, that of a 22-year-old university student beauty queen in the provincial city of Valencia this week, it was the opposition, not government supporters, who opened fire. He told reporters Friday, however, that the government is investigating allegations that members of the federal intelligence agency fired the shots that killed two opposition members during the Feb. 12 rally.
Maduro, who was elected following the death of the late Hugo Chavez and has sought to continue his policies, on Friday also denounced what he calls a “campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution,” in the international media. He has also bristled at criticism from abroad, including a statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who faulted Venezuela’s government for confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of CNN en Espanol reporters, among other things.
“This is not how democracies behave,” Kerry said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in San Cristobal, Venezuela contributed to this report.