WATCH: Mass protests in Venezuela threaten to turn violent this weekend. Christina Stevens reports.
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelans on both sides of the nation’s political divide took to the streets on Saturday after nearly two weeks of mass protests that have President Nicolas Maduro scrambling to reassert his leadership of this economically stricken country.
In Caracas, tens of thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro filled several city blocks in their biggest rally to date against Maduro’s 10-month-old government. Across town, a mostly female crowd of government backers gathered in T-shirts and baseball caps, forming a sea of red – the colour of Maduro’s Socialist party.
The dueling protests capped a violent week in which a government crackdown jailed hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and dozens of other activists. The violence also left at least nine people dead on both sides and injured at least 100 others.
Venezuelans woke up Saturday to smouldering barricades of trash and other debris in the streets of some major cities, but there were no reports of major violence. Protesters have called on Maduro to either resolve problems such as rising crime and galloping inflation or step aside.
“When are you going to resolve our problems, when we’re all in the cemetery?” two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles asked before a crowd of government opponents. “If you (Maduro) can’t, then it’s time to go.”
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 to live music and carried photos of the late president Hugo Chavez while vendors hawked calendars emblazoned with his image.
“There is crime everywhere, not just Venezuela … and Maduro isn’t to blame for any shortages of food, it’s the people who own the businesses,” said Gloria Cera, 54.
The banner stretching across the rally stage proclaimed the event a demonstration of “women against fascist violence,” echoing Maduro’s allegation that the protests are part of a right-wing effort to oust his socialist government.
The opposition gathering in the capital was timed to coincide with others around Venezuela.
“If we stay in the streets they will finally understand what we want,” said Juan Altimari, a journalism student and protest leader.
Thousands of people marched peacefully 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. Protesters criticized high crime, food shortages and inflation that has made life difficult for many in a country that once had one of South America’s highest living standards because of 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 the San Cristobal march.
The current political turmoil in Venezuela was sparked on Feb. 12 by huge opposition marches that killed three people – two opposition members and a government supporter.
Authorities blamed opposition leader Lopez for fomenting he 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, with deadly results.
Maduro has said 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, 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 a Feb. 12 rally.
Maduro, who was elected president after Chavez died of cancer, also denounced on Friday what he calls a “campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution.”
He also bristled at criticism from abroad, including a statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who faulted Venezuela’s government for, among other actions, confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of reporters from TV channel CNN en Espanol.
“This is not how democracies behave,” Kerry said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report from San Cristobal.
© The Associated Press, 2014