Thousands of flag-waving protesters flooded the streets of Venezuela’s capital Tuesday to keep the pressure on the government on the eve of commemorations marking the anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death.
Led by students, marchers dressed in white proceeded peacefully as they streamed through middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas toward Petare, a sprawling slum on the city’s eastern edge.
Protesters chanted “We love you Venezuela” and “Freedom!” as they walked, carrying signs and flags in the red, yellow and blue national colors before stopping at the entrance of Petare.
The demonstrators said they wanted to show that protesters are not just from the middle-class and that the capital’s poorer places are not all strongholds of the socialist government.
“It’s a lie that Petare is 100 percent Chavista,” said Morela Perez, a 39-year-old unemployed resident of the barrio, which is known to include a mix of government backers and supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Holding a sign that read “Petare you are not Chavista,” she said protests have not happened there because people are afraid of pro-Chavez activists.
The protesters hoisted banners accusing the government of censorship and repression. “There is enough teargas to make Venezuela cry,” read one.
At least 18 people have died and more than 260 were injured since the protests erupted February 4 in the western border city of San Cristobal, igniting the biggest challenge yet to the nearly year-old government of Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro.
The opposition has been intent on keeping up the momentum of month-old protests against the Maduro government, which is trying just as hard to defuse the protest movement.
The government has encouraged Venezuelans to take full advantage of the annual Carnival holidays, which end Tuesday.
On Wednesday, it is staging a military and civilian parade to mark one year since Chavez’s death of cancer, after 14 years in office.
Rampant crime, soaring inflation, shortages and worsening living conditions have fueled anger with the government, particularly among the hard-hit middle class.
Analysts say the protests centered on the middle-class have yet to pose a threat to the Maduro government, which relies on a well of support among the poor.
But Mariana Fonseca, a 39-year-old graphic designer in a baseball cap the colors of the Venezuelan flag, said the protesters were marching toward Petare because the poor also are affected by street crime.
“The people in the barrios are also with the cause,” she said.
“I am protesting for many reasons. One is the violence in the streets, the robberies and the kidnappings. But also because of the shortages of the things like flour, oil and toilet paper,” she said.
Maria Eugenia Molina, a 70-year-old who carried a sign with a peace dove and an image of the Virgin Mary, described herself as a “prisoner of the government.”
“I am a prisoner of the lack of security. I have to stand in long lines to get food. My pension is not enough to make ends meet,” she said.
Opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado led another group of protesters on a march in eastern Caracas, alongside the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
As they passed by the La Carlota airbase, they hung large photographs of the dead on a perimeter fence.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]