Caracas (AFP) – Dressed in white, Venezuelan protesters opposed to President Nicolas Maduro marched in silence in several cities to pay respects to 20 people killed in three weeks of unrest.
Unlike demonstrations in recent days, the rallies in Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and San Cristobal passed with no major violence reported between protesters and police.
A few minor scuffles briefly broke out in the east of the capital when police forced back the crowd with tear gas.
For the first time since the turmoil in the streets started at the beginning of April, the demonstrators were able to cross Caracas, including several districts loyal to Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Tense negotiations saw security forces who had been blocking their way step aside to allow them to march to their destination, the headquarters of the Catholic bishops’ conference.
Protesters also marched to the Catholic Church’s episcopal seats in several other cities across the country, tightly guarded by the police and national guard.
The opposition is seen as close to the Church, which the government accuses of playing politics against it.
The “silent protest” was a test of the authorities’ tolerance for peaceful demonstrations.
The center-right opposition has accused the leftist government of repressing past protests and sending armed thugs to attack them.
Many wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the word “peace.” Others carried white flowers or Venezuelan flags, while one protester wielded a giant wooden cross.
– ‘Nothing left to lose’ –
In Caracas, a priest and an evangelical pastor led a mass for the demonstrators from the back of a truck.
Some protesters said they were not afraid of the government.
“We’ve got nothing left to lose. The government’s already taken everything, all possibility of living our lives with dignity,” said protester Jessica Muchacho, 33.
“The government has to back down, it has to listen to the people,” said a protesting lawyer, Rosibel Torres.
One of the opposition leaders, Henrique Capriles, urged the crowd “to keep coming out into the streets — this isn’t the time to give up, it’s a time to resist.”
The opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy on Monday, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.
Its leaders blame Maduro for the unraveling of oil giant Venezuela’s once-booming economy, which has left the country with shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
The spark that set off the near-daily protests was an attempt by the Supreme Court to take over the powers of the opposition-dominated Congress.
Although it partly reversed course after an international outcry, the move fueled widespread indignation in Venezuela that was heightened when an order came down barring Capriles from political office.
– ‘Like a war’ –
A sociologist, Francisco Coello, predicted that “the people will continue to protest,” demanding early elections.
On Thursday, protests descended into a night of clashes, riots and looting that left 12 people dead in Caracas. More pockets of violence erupted Friday night.
Residents described terrifying scenes Thursday night and early Friday.
“It was like a war,” said Carlos Yanez, a resident of the El Valle neighborhood in southwestern Caracas, where 11 people were killed.
The two sides blame each other for the unrest.
Maduro, the heir of the leftist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late Hugo Chavez in 1999, says the protests are part of a US-backed coup plot.
According to pollster Venebarometro, seven in 10 Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, whose term does not end until 2019.
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro — one of Maduro’s harshest critics — accused the government of cowardice.
“When the political leadership gives the order to open fire on its own people, that’s a very strong signal of cowardice and weakness,” he told AFP.