Opposition, pro-govt rallies grip Venezuela

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Associated Press

Posted on February 22, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Updated Sunday, Feb 23 at 6:34 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans on both sides of the nation's bitter political divide took to the streets on Saturday after two weeks of mass protests that have President Nicolas Maduro scrambling to squash an increasingly militant opposition movement.

In Caracas, tens of thousands of opponents of the president filled several city blocks in their biggest rally to date against his 10-month-old government. Across town, at the presidential palace, Maduro addressed a much-smaller crowd of mostly female supporters dressed in the red of his socialist party.

The dueling protests capped a violent week in which the government jailed Leopoldo Lopez, a fiery hard-liner who roused the opposition following its defeat in December's mayoral elections, and dozens of other student activists. The violence has left at least 10 people dead on both sides and injured more than 100.

A few small clashes that erupted between government opponents and state security forces after the opposition rally broke up were visually impressive, but resulted in only five injuries.

In a pattern seen in past demonstrations, dozens of stragglers erected barricades of trash and other debris and threw rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen. Troops responded with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent the students from reaching a highway.

There were also clashes in San Cristobal, a remote city on the western border with Colombia that has seen some of the worst violence, but most opposition marches across the country ended peacefully.

The protests claimed their 10th fatality, when a 23-year-old student in the provincial city of Valencia was pronounced dead Saturday after an eight-hour surgery for brain injuries suffered at a demonstration earlier in the week.

Geraldine Moreno was near her home on Wednesday, watching students defend a barricade at the corner of her street, when six national guardsmen rushed in and fired rubber bullets at close range, hitting her in the face, El Universal newspaper reported.

On Saturday at the opposition rally held in wealthier eastern Caracas, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles urged supporters to keep pressuring the government to resolve problems afflicting the oil-rich nation, from rampant crime to galloping 56 percent inflation.

"If you (Maduro) can't, then it's time to go," Capriles told the crowd.

Capriles, 41, has frequently criticized Lopez's strategy of taking to the streets without building support among the poor. Those differences were on display again Saturday, when he told supporters that unrest in middle-class neighborhoods distracts people's attention from the country's mounting woes and only strengthens the government's hand.

 Still, he downplayed any sense of division within the opposition's ranks, and recalled his own four-month confinement in 2002 in the same military prison where Lopez is being held while vowing to fight for the politician's release.

"We may have our differences, but there's something bigger than us all that unites us, which is Venezuela, damn it!" Capriles said.

Elsewhere in the capital, government backers filled a wide avenue in a boisterous march to the presidential palace accompanied by sound trucks blaring music and slogans. The crowd made up mostly of women danced in the street and carried photos of the late president Hugo Chavez.

First Lady Cilia Flores called on supporters to be alert for opposition attempts to incite more violence in the days ahead to create conditions for a Ukraine-like power grab.

"Venezuela isn't Ukraine," Flores, who rarely speaks in public but is a close adviser to her husband, told the crowd. "The right-wing fascists aren't going to impose themselves here."

Maduro said he won't pull security forces off the streets until the opposition abandons what calls a "fascist" conspiracy to oust him from power.

"This elected president, the son of Chavez, is going to keep protecting the people," he said while holding up what he said was an improvised explosive device used by protesters to attack government buildings and security forces. "Nobody is going to blackmail me."

It's unclear whether the street protests can maintain their momentum with fatigue setting in, the Carnival holiday approaching and no Kiev-like ousting of Maduro in sight.

Capriles has said he'll attend a meeting Monday called by Maduro to talk with local authorities, including opposition members, but is threatening to walk out if his remarks aren't broadcast live on national TV as the president's are almost daily.

Even if the protests fizzle out, the underlying frustrations that sparked them show no sign of easing: high crime, food shortages and inflation that erodes living standards in a country with the world's biggest 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 the San Cristobal march.

The current political turmoil in Venezuela was sparked on Feb. 12 by huge opposition marches that left three people dead— two opposition members and a government supporter.

Authorities blamed opposition leader Lopez for fomenting the violence and jailed him on charges including arson and incitement, prompting anger from his supporters at home and criticism from abroad.

The opposition accuses the National Guard and armed militia groups of attacking protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds, as well as beating up and menacing some of the hundreds of activists who've been jailed nationwide.

Maduro said for the first time Friday that he's investigating whether security forces opened fire at the Feb. 12 protests. But he spent most of a nearly three-hour press conference denouncing what he called a "campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution" by foreign media.

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Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Jorge Rueda and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report from Caracas. Vivian Sequera contributed from San Cristobal.

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