'Chavistas' march in Venezuela, opposition protests continue
CARACAS - Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro marched in the center of Caracas on Saturday to call for peace and make a show of political strength after this week's deadly violence at street protests.
In a well-off eastern part of the capital, several hundred protesters gathered to demand the president resign, denouncing him over grievances ranging from political repression to daily issues such inflation, shortages and rampant crime.
Almost a year after he succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro accuses his rivals of stoking unrest to try and stage a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted Chavez. There are, however, no indications the current turmoil could oust him.
"We have to celebrate the revolution, which is love and peace," said "Chavista" supporter Kaina Lovera, a 16-year-old wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the late leader's face.
"The opposition isn't gaining anything with the protests, they are just spreading hatred," she said.
Late on Friday police used teargas and water cannons to clear about 1,000 protesters from a square in eastern Caracas where some of them had lit fires and blocked streets.
Venezuela's state prosecutor said 25 of 99 people arrested in connection with this week's violence had been freed pending trial, and that the others would be processed within hours.
The protesters insist they will defy Maduro's ban on unauthorized demonstrations, put in place after three people were shot dead this week following an opposition-led march.
"The more the government tries to repress us, the firmer we'll be. We are going to be in the streets everyday," said 22-year-old student Andrea Fernandez, her cheeks painted with the blue, yellow and red of the Venezuelan flag.
"This is a peaceful protest and we're going to see results soon," she said, speaking alongside several hundred opposition supporters who gathered in the wealthy eastern Caracas district of Las Mercedes to sing and chant slogans.
The protesters blame Maduro for a host of complaints ranging from the fast-rising cost of living, shortages of basic products in stores, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Demonstrations that turn violent could, however, play into the president's hands by giving him a chance to unite factions within the ruling Socialist Party, divide the opposition coalition where many question the wisdom of the street tactics - and distract people from economic problems.
Maduro, a burly 51-year-old former bus driver and union boss, has staked his presidency of maintaining Chavez's radical socialism. He says Venezuela faces an "economic war" being waged against it by the opposition - backed, he says, by shadowy U.S. financiers - which is being worsened by speculators.
His critics accuse him of wrecking the economy by persisting with failed Chavez-era policies such as currency and price controls, which many local economists blame for the shortages.
Among those critics is hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom the government calls the "face of fascism" and the intellectual author of the violence.
The 42-year-old U.S.-educated economist says peaceful marches organized by his Popular Will party have been infiltrated by provocateurs and attacked by militant pro-government gangs known locally as "colectivos."
He has remained in his Caracas home, colleagues said, despite a judge's arrest warrant for him. It was not immediately clear why police had not acted on the warrant, though such a move could fuel further protests.