CARACAS – Venezuelan opposition supporters took to the streets again on Monday to protest a grinding economic crisis and an erosion of democracy under leftist President Nicolas Maduro, in the first sustained wave of anti-government demonstrations in three years.
Venezuelans have been irate for months over shortages of basic goods and roaring inflation that have led to millions skipping meals or surviving on starches.
But demonstrations had ebbed amid protester fatigue, until a Supreme Court decision in late March to assume the functions of the opposition-led congress sparked outcry.
The court quickly overturned the most controversial part of its decision but the move triggered condemnation at home and abroad, as did Friday’s news that the national comptroller had banned politician Henrique Capriles – seen as the opposition’s best hope in a presidential election scheduled for next year – from office for 15 years.
Four nationwide protests in the last 10 days degenerated into clashes between youths throwing stones and security forces spraying crowds with tear gas. On Monday, there were protests in several cities. A few thousand people marched in Caracas but authorities blocked the highway and fired tear gas.
“It’s working, the government is scared and making mistakes like banning Capriles, because that generates more support for him,” said homemaker Imelda Guerrero, 66, who said her three children have emigrated due to the crisis.
“But this is will be a long struggle, it’s only just starting,” she added in Caracas.
The opposition is demanding a date for gubernatorial elections, meant to be held last year, and is seeking early presidential elections.
Despite the surge in protests, many Venezuelans are pessimistic that marches can bring about change, scared of violent clashes, or simply too busy trying to find food.
Maduro’s unpopular government accuses the opposition of fomenting violence to lay the ground for a foreign invasion.
Some 188 protesters, most of them students, were arrested in the period April 4-8 and 57 are still behind bars, rights group Penal Forum said on Monday.
Nine people, including two teenagers, were arrested for breaking into an office of the Supreme Court and vandalizing it at the end of Saturday’s march. And a 19-year-old was shot dead in violence around protests on Thursday.
The government has come under increased pressure from American and European countries that have condemned violence in Venezuela and the ban on Capriles.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who accuses foreign countries of “meddling,” traveled to communist ally Cuba on Sunday for a meeting of the leftist ALBA bloc.
“The lazy one has gone to Cuba on holiday, he would do the country a favor by staying there,” Capriles jabbed at him on Twitter.