Tear gas marks May Day in tense Venezuela

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Caracas (AFP) – Security forces in Venezuela fired tear gas to drive back protesters Monday as pro- and anti-government May Day rallies erupted exactly one month into a wave of deadly political unrest.

Officers clashed with some 300 protesters, some throwing stones, who tried to break through security barriers to the electoral council headquarters in central Caracas.

Opposition leaders have vowed no let-up in their protests demanding elections to get rid of President Nicolas Maduro.

They blame him for an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine.

Clashes between protesters and riot police left 28 people dead last month, according to prosecutors.

“The regime is betting that we will tire ourselves out. That is why, after one month of resistance, we must show our strength,” said senior opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara.

  • May Day protests –

Maduro’s supporters meanwhile staged their traditional Workers’ Day rally in Bolivar Square in the central pro-government district of the capital.

“We are marching in support of Maduro and to defend the conquests of the revolution,” said Edmundo Marcano, 55.

The opposition marched defiantly towards the nearby Supreme Court and the electoral council, sparking the latest in weeks of skirmishes.

“I am out fighting for Maduro to go. This is a dictatorship in disguise,” said Matilde Rodriguez, 67, from the working class Petare district of Caracas.

“Venezuela is in intensive care. There is no food and they’ll kill you for a pair of shoes.”

Security forces put up metal barriers in the center to block access for the opposition. Some 30 metro stations were shut down.

“The first of May belongs to the working class. It is not a day of capitalism or the right wing,” Maduro said on Sunday.

Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles retorted: “The biggest and most historic announcement Maduro could make for the workers and for the country would be to leave power.”

  • Month of unrest –

Protesters took to the streets from April 1 to demand elections after the Supreme Court tried to strengthen Maduro’s grip on power.

The opposition has accused him of installing a dictatorship.

Analysts say street rallies are one of the few means the opposition has left of pressuring Maduro.

Maduro says the economic crisis in his major oil-exporting nation is a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.

The Venezuelan president has vowed to continue the socialist “Bolivarian revolution” launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Last month’s violence was “an ambush… to impose a violent counter-revolution in Venezuela,” he said on Sunday in a television broadcast.

He marked Workers’ Day by raising the minimum wage 60 percent. That brought it to $280 a month at the highest fixed exchange rate.

The International Monetary Fund estimates Venezuela’s inflation rate will hit 720 percent this year.

  • Election demand –

Maduro has rejected opposition calls for general elections before his term ends late next year.

He has said he is willing to hold regional polls that were postponed in December.

But the electoral authorities have not set a date and electoral prospects for the center-right opposition coalition look slim.

Popular Will party leader Leopoldo Lopez is in jail. Capriles of the Justice First party has been banned from politics by authorities.

Yet aside from dangerous street protests, regional elections this year may be their only remaining lever for pressuring Maduro.

“We have to combine the elections with resistance in the street to change the government,” said Miguel Pizarro, an opposition lawmaker.

Maduro on Sunday welcomed an offer by Pope Francis of Vatican mediation for dialogue between the sides.

But opposition leaders rebuffed the overture, insisting there must be a timetable for general elections.

    <figure><figcaption>Police agents ride their motorbikes amid tear gas during a march against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on May 1, 2017
        <span>Copyright AFP FEDERICO PARRA                      </span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/61ee0eea35bbb89679fe9c599aa857a31558041f-1.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>An opposition activist takes part in a march against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on May 1, 2017
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/7985894c5d9f61d8debc8fcc6cf1c2d4e37324a1-1.jpg" width="553" height="768"><figcaption>Opposition leaders vowed no let-up in their protests demanding elections to get rid of President Nicolas Maduro
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/a2df2c262546639316ee85b14f9c5db4fef2f9be-1.jpg" width="768" height="518"><figcaption>Venezuelan opposition activists clash with the police during a march against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on May 1, 2017
        <span>Copyright AFP FEDERICO PARRA                      </span>
      </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/07ef68adde1f11ede00dee71c15832b94776fc3e-1.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has rejected opposition calls for&nbsp;general elections before his term ends
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
      </figcaption></figure>