Caracas, Venezuela – Tens of thousands of protesters from opposing sides of Venezuela’s political divide have massed on the streets of the capital, trying to win support and promote peace.
After the respective rallies ended on Saturday, anti-government protesters and police clashed in some areas of the city.
At least nine people have died during the recent bout of unrest, and while some activists on both sides called for consensus and dialogue, deep divisions in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves show no sign of easing.
The opposition’s rally drew heavily on students, professionals and workers dissatisfied with high crime, inflation and what they see as the erosion of democratic institutions. The pro-government rally included many employees of state-linked companies, pensioners, and workers from the informal sector.
At the heart of the matter are two different political projects: socialism and capitalism, to put it simply. By in large, partisans of the opposing sides read separate newspapers, live in different areas and view each other with distrust. At this point, there is little common ground.
Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault spoke to demonstrators on both sides of the political divide about what keeps them on the streets.
|Raul Arnaldo Borges, administrator and teacher|
|Raul Arnaldo Borges [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
I am one of the people who got hurt here – on this very bridge – in 2002 [during a short-lived coup against the elected government]. I think we are still facing subversive dynamics in the country. They want to break our constitutional order through violence.
To make a long story short, we are here to defend our constitutional rights and elected president.
There are more places to study now [since the socialists were first elected]. In 1998, 600,000 students were studying, now there are 2.9 million. Over 60 percent of them have scholarships equal to the minimum wage.
We now have socialist enterprises where people can participate in the running of companies, and our new labour laws are not drafted from the capitalists’ point of view.
There are new laws to promote gender rights. We have built 550,000 new apartments, with furniture, which are given to the poor. You can feel the revolutionary changes happening here; they are groovy.
|Sarai Bustamante, student assistant|
|Sarai Bustamante [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
The government is terrible, the insecurity; the scarcity. Basically, it is difficult to find what you want in the stores. Harina Pan [corn flower used for making Arepas, the national dish] is hard to find, so is toilet paper. I used to find it everywhere.
Soap and milk are also hard. I have a little kid, but I cannot find milk in the market. When I find diapers, they are so expensive and I have to walk a lot to find them.
The prices are crazy high. The salaries are not enough to buy basic goods.
People should be allowed to do what they want with their money.
There might be some people in the opposition who have money, but I am poor.
|Caridad Blanco, retired worker|
|Caridad Blanco [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
I blame the opposition and Leopoldo Lopez for the violence that has been happening. We were not aware of our rights, of our own history before [the election of deceased former President Hugo] Chavez. He was more than a president; he was a teacher.
Chavez taught us to love our culture and our patriotic symbols. I am a different person since the revolution.
If you want a concrete achievement: In 1999, less than 300,000 people were receiving pensions. Now we [pensioners] are three million. My mother was an ironing lady and she was never able to get a pension before.
The opposition is causing inflation and they exaggerate it [in their media]. We have the political power, but they still have the economic power.
|Daniel Martinez, student leader|
|Daniel Martinez [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
It is necessary for different parts of the country to come together. There are social problems, unrest and intolerance. But what is affecting Venezuelans the most is personal insecurity and the economic situation.
In the next six months, we need some sort of commitment from the government for dialogue.
We are demanding full freedom for jailed students who were protesting. Secondly, we need a security plan for the universities and justice for those who were killed and tortured by security forces. That is basically it.
They need to stop censoring the media and change the course of the economic situation. Us young people need to be able to get jobs. In a nutshell, we are protesting for freedom of speech and we are angry about the cost of living.
|Mariel Vega, analyst with government’s women’s rights department|
|Mariel Vega, centre [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
Everything looked good at the protest today. We do not want violence. We want unity and to keep moving the nation forward. Equality for gender has been the biggest victory for the revolution, in my view.
Politically, socially and economically, the situation for women has gotten better. One of the advances of the revolution is that we feel equal; there is now a reciprocal relationship between men and women.
I blame the opposition for the violence. They are fostering hate. It is in their best interest to be seen as the victims, but they are promoting violence at their marches and then blaming us.
They are trying to damage social movements, like they did in 2002 [during a short-lived coup]
The high inflation rate is part of the war. They are hiding raw materials. It is the same issue – the opposition is trying to create problems and then blame the government.
|Juan Pablo Lopez Gross, opposition politician and campaign director|
|Juan Pablo Lopez Gross [Chris Arsenault/Al Jazeera]|
My party [Voluntad Popular, the same party as jailed politician Leopoldo Lopez] has been a victim of harsh persecution.
All my brothers live outside of the country [because of the conditions here]; I am the only one left.
The government says they won 18 out of 19 elections. But democracy is not only elections.
[In the last set of elections] people were threatened. They [Maduro’s party] abused state institutions to make their own political campaign.
Public sector workers feared they would lose their jobs if they did not vote for the government. We did not have a fair share [of access to the public] to deliver our message because of a lack of media access.
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