Intense photos show Venezuela being rocked by the 'mother of all protests'
Venezuela's protracted economic, political, and social crises have burst onto the streets again in recent weeks.
The recent spate of demonstrations have seen thousands of Venezuelans out protesting their government.
Prior to Wednesday, five people had been killed in clashes around the country.
This week, opposition leaders called demonstrators to the streets on Wednesday in what they dubbed the "mother of all marches."
"President Maduro has called his supporters to march in some of the same places that the opposition had already targeted their supporters," David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said on Wednesday. "Maduro also called in a military plan, so there's military in the streets in Caracas."
"So everything is set for their to be violence today," he said. By late Wednesday, three more people had reportedly been killed in the protests.
This round of protests was partly inspired by the supreme court's attempt to usurp the legislature's power, which one government minister decried as a "rupture of constitutional order." The court walked that move back, but in the weeks since, opposition politicians have been barred from office, deepening public ire.
Public protest has been common over the last few months, but the opposition has struggled to gain leverage over the Maduro government, both because of government efforts to block it and because of internal divisions in the opposition coalition.
In recent days, Maduro has upped his rhetoric. On Monday, he announced plans to expand the number of civilians in armed militias from 100,000 to 500,000. "A gun for every militiaman," he said, adding that it was time for Venezuelans to decide if they were "with the homeland" or against it.
On Tuesday, Maduro said he was activating Plan Zamora to maintain order and stability in Venezuela in the face of alleged threats of a coup that he attributed to the US. On Wednesday, he accused Julio Borges, parliamentary president and opposition leader, of "a crime against the constitution."
Wednesday's protest got off to a tense start. In the Libertador district in western Caracas (the most violent city in the world two years running) security forces reportedly impeded opposition protesters from gathering, firing tear gas to force them to disperse. The government has also blocked streets and cut subway service in the capital.
Two people, both students, had been killed by late afternoon. One, an 17-year-old student, had no plans to protest and was going to play soccer in the capital when he was struck by gunshots allegedly fired by government supporters.
In the western city of San Cristobal, an opposition stronghold near the Colombian border, a 23-year-old university student died after being shot by armed men on motorbikes who were allegedly government supporters. She was leaving a protest when she was struck.
Another death was reported in Guayana, bringing the total to at least eight so far in this round of protests.
Venezuelans' quality of life has also deteriorated. Last year, 13% of the country rated their lives as thriving, down from 57% in 2012, the year before Maduro took office. Nine out of 10 said the economy was getting worse, and four of five said they had struggled to afford food over the previous year.
"We have to protest because this country is dying of hunger," said Alexis Mendoza, a 53-year-old administrator marching in the Caracas neighborhood of El Paraiso.
The activity in the streets — both pro- and anti-government demonstrations and the heavy security presence — has drawn comparisons to clashes prior to a 2002 coup that briefly deposed then-President Hugo Chavez. Maduro accused the opposition of trying to depose him as well.
The international community has raised alarm about the situation. Eleven Latin American countries signed a letter on Monday calling on the Maduro government to schedule local elections that have been delayed. Maduro's government has rejected regional action as "meddling."
"The country is in a state of constitutional impasse and institutional paralysis," said Julia Buxton, a professor at Central European University. "Neither the government nor the opposition want to be seen conceding ground, both lack a broad popular mandate ... and they have locked the country into a destructive zero-sum game."
"In light of the extreme gravity of the country's conditions, there is always the chance that violence could spread and even get out of control," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "More likely, however, is that violence will be largely contained, the government will hold on, and the country will hold presidential elections late next year," presenting the government's most severe test, ending with what will likely be an electoral loss.
"In Venezuela, there is no peace, no justice," Jose Rafael Rojas, 60, told The Washington Post, saying he had taken the day off work to join the march. "Having to search for food is very frustrating for me. Every time I look for corn flour, I can never find it."
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