Venezuela opposition begins protests, Maduro counters

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 12, 2016 1:10 PM

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition launched a new protest campaign on Saturday to oust President Nicolas Maduro, but support was thin and the ruling Socialists countered it with their own "anti-imperialist" rally.

Though thousands on both sides took to the streets of Caracas, neither march recalled the passionate rallies of recent years here, with many Venezuelans exhausted by an economic and social crisis that seemed to be worsening.

The opposition alliance has begun a multi-pronged push to oust Maduro via protests, a recall referendum or a constitutional amendment to cut his term.

Buoyed by a December win in legislative elections, they hope to capitalize on anger over a deep recession, triple-digit inflation and rampant insecurity.

"Venezuela is in chaos. They promise and promise and nothing: more misery, more crime and more destruction," said Ruth Briceno, 35, a law student in the wealthy district of Chacao, who was among a couple of thousand opposition supporters.

"We can't get food for our children. ... We need Maduro to resign this year."

Two years ago, the opposition mobilized tens of thousands of people in nationwide protests. For weeks, Venezuela's streets were filled with tear gas and burning trash.

Similar protests have begun in the fiery western city of San Cristobal, though they have yet to hit the capital.

On the other side of Caracas, red-clad supporters came out for the government in protest against U.S. President Barack Obama's renewing of a decree sanctioning several top Venezuelan officials. Maduro pulled Venezuela's top diplomat back from Washington in protest earlier this week.

"We're here to defeat Obama's decree. It's stupid," said Raiza Sucre, a 50-year-old government worker, who arrived on a government-funded bus at 5 a.m. for the rally that also drew several thousand protesters.

She said U.S. greed for oil was a threat to Venezuela, which obtains 94 percent of export revenue from crude and has suffered heavily from the price drop.

Obama is due to travel to Cuba, a major ally of Venezuela, later this month.

The Venezuelan government has failed in recent years to attract the large crowds and enthusiasm under Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez. The multi-party opposition coalition too may struggle in its bid to get people out onto the streets after 2014 protests failed to bring about any change.

"I don't support either side as they're both the same," said Miguel Contrera, a 57-year-old shoe-shiner who avidly supported Chavez until his death in 2013. "They need to come to an agreement to improve things."

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorn and Richard Chang)