Caracas (AFP) – Protesters blocked major roads in Venezuela on Monday to raise pressure on President Nicolas Maduro after three weeks of unrest that have left 21 people dead.
Riot police fired tear gas at a group of masked protesters who threw stones at them in Caracas, though thousands of other demonstrators nearby rallied peacefully, AFP reporters saw.
After deadly clashes with police last week during marches through the city, the opposition this time told supporters to stand in crowds on the main highway into the capital and other towns.
Tension is high in the oil-rich country, wracked by shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies.
“We are taking a stand so that Maduro knows he has to go,” said Amalia Duran, a housewife of 41.
She joined thousands of protesters who gathered in Caracas under a scorching sun, many dressed in white and waving Venezuelan flags of red, yellow and blue.
“We are hungry because of him,” she said of the president. “I can’t find milk for my 16-month-old baby.”
– Elections demanded –
The center right-led opposition is demanding elections to get rid of Maduro, blaming him for the crisis.
It is furious at recent moves by authorities to curb his opponents’ power.
A presidential election is scheduled for 2018. Elections for regional governors due in December were postponed.
Maduro said Sunday he wanted the regional elections “now” but did not indicate a possible date for those or local ballots that are due this year.
“I am ready for whatever the electoral authorities say,” he insisted.
But the government has ruled out an early presidential election this year as opposition leaders have demanded.
– Street pressure –
Maduro controls nearly all the state institutions and has the support of the military.
The courts and electoral authorities have fended off efforts to remove him since an opposition majority took over the legislature in January 2016.
Analysts say street protests are now one of the few levers the opposition has for change.
“I have come because I am tired of this. I went round 20 pharmacies looking for a simple antibiotic,” said Yorwin Ruiz, 26, demonstrating in Caracas on Monday.
“We cannot go on like this. I hope we at least manage to have elections.”
– Maduro pressured –
The socialist leader won the 2013 election by a narrow margin over Capriles. But Maduro’s popularity has since dropped.
A recent survey by pollster Venebarometro indicated that seven out of 10 Venezuelans disapprove of him.
The opposition blames Maduro for the unraveling of the oil giant’s once-booming economy.
Falling oil prices have slashed its revenues, leading to critical shortages and outbreaks of looting.
Maduro resisted the opposition’s efforts last year to hold a referendum on removing him from power.
Vatican-mediated negotiations between the two sides also broke down.
Late last month, the authorities moved to seize the powers of the opposition-majority legislature, before reversing the measure.
They later banned senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles from politics.
The moves sparked international condemnation and a wave of opposition demonstrations from the start of this month.
The government and the opposition have accused each other of fomenting the deadly violence.
Authorities say 21 have been killed, hundreds arrested or wounded and businesses looted.
– ‘Coup’ claims –
Each side has accused the other of trying to mount a “coup.”
Maduro says the crisis is a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.
His critics brand him a dictator.
“Peaceful protests across the country will continue until Mr Maduro respects the constitution and ends his internal coup,” Capriles tweeted Monday.
“If there is no answer from Maduro’s corrupt drug-trafficking leadership, at the end of the day we will announce further action.”