CARACAS (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro marched in central 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 prosperous eastern part of the capital, at least 1,000 protesters gathered to demand the president’s resignation, denouncing him over grievances ranging from political repression to daily issues such as inflation, shortages of basic products, and rampant crime.
Almost a year after succeeding the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro accuses his rivals of stoking unrest to try to stage a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted Chavez. There are, however, no indications the current turmoil could lead to his ouster.
“You want to see people in the streets? We’ll give you people in the streets,” the president said to loud applause and cheers of “No to fascism!” at the rally.
Addressing the crowd from a pastel-colored stage displaying the slogan “People of Peace,” he mocked the demands of protesters who want him to step down.
“I‘m not going to give up one millimetre of the power the Venezuelan people have given me ... nothing will stop me from building this revolution which commandant Chavez left us!”
Late on Friday, police used teargas and water cannon to clear some 1,000 protesters from Altamira Square in eastern Caracas, where some of them had lit trash bonfires and blocked streets.
The protesters are vowing to defy Maduro’s ban on unauthorized demonstrations, put in place after three people were shot dead this week after an opposition-led march.
On Saturday, supporters of the opposition gathered again to sing and chant slogans in the square. Many then set off to block a major highway, as they had done briefly the night before.
“They say we’re rich kids, but I‘m from a humble family,” said Joseph Sandoval, a 24-year-old student. “I represent the majority of Venezuelans who are sick of seeing our country sinking like this.”
Nearby, another student, Michael Paredes, 26, carried a bag with vinegar and a bandana - to protect against teargas.
“People are asleep,” Parades said. “It’s time for action.”
Maduro said in his speech he had ordered the temporary closure of Metro station and suspension of bus services in the east of the city, where the protests are centered.
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 end in bloodshed could, however, play into the president’s hands by helping him 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.
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.
Maduro, a burly 51-year-old former bus driver and union boss, has staked his presidency on maintaining Chavez’s radical socialism. He says Venezuela faces an “economic war” waged by the opposition - backed by U.S. financiers and made worse by speculators.
Supporters say he is the victim of Western “imperial” propaganda and saboteurs seeking to discredit Chavez’s legacy.
“We have to celebrate the revolution, which is love and peace,” said Kaina Lovera, 16, wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the late leader’s face.
Maduro’s critics say he is wrecking the economy by sticking 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.”
Lopez remains in his home in the Chacao district of eastern Caracas where he was once mayor, 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. Maduro demanded on Saturday that Lopez surrender himself.
“The opposition organize these violent groups, and then they hide and cry,” the president said. “You fugitive from justice, trembling with fear, you fascist coward! Hand yourself in!”
Additional reporting by Efrain Otero, Diego Ore and Eyanir Chinea; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Bernard Orr and Gunna Dickson