Anti-government protesters have hit the streets of Venezuela’s capital and other cities, protesting over food shortages and rising inflation, as well as against the government’s crackdown on demonstrators.
Thursday’s protests in Caracas saw fewer numbers, as revellers prepared for carnival celebrations.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered in the wealthy Caracas neighbourhood of Chacao, an opposition stronghold, under the theme “No more dead”.
Clashes broke out when about 200 demonstrators tried to block a nearby highway and security forces dispersed them using tear gas.
Reporting from Venezuela, Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault said that South America’s largest oil exporter began a week-long holiday amid ongoing protests, road blockades and efforts by the government to promote a “peace conference”.
Barricades erected by opponents of the Socialist government are proving particularly disruptive in cities outside the capital, including San Cristobal near the Colombian border, and the industrial city of Valencia.
In the northern section of Valencia – Venezuela’s third largest city – young opposition activists burned cars and used them as barricades, while southern areas where government support runs high remained mostly quiet.
So far, we have shown that the majority wants the country run this way
“We voted for a president [Nicolas Maduro] and we demand respect for him and our institutions,” government supporter Laura Urlosno told Al Jazeera. “If the opposition wants to make a change, they have to add more people to their cause and gain votes. So far, we have shown that the majority wants the country run this way.”
Most businesses in San Cristobal, a city of 250,000, are shuttered. Concrete barricades and burning garbage strewn across intersections make transportation difficult. The city’s mayor backs the protests, and the government has deployed additional security forces in an attempt to restore order.
Some analysts believe the government extended upcoming carnival holidays in an attempt to deflate demonstrations, but protester Isabel Martinez said she planned to stay in the streets. “I believe the demonstrations might go down a bit,” she told Al Jazeera while standing at a demonstration with a group of friends. “But we have all cancelled our vacations.”
Long lines formed outside a super-market outside of Valencia, after shoppers heard rumours that corn flour and sugar supplies had arrived, underscoring complaints from the opposition about food shortages and crime.
At least 16 people have died in more than two weeks of unrest, spawned partially by the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, a far-right opposition politician on February 12. The government issued an arrest warrant for Carlos Vecchio, the second-in-command of Lopez’s Popular Will party on Thursday for allegedly stoking violent demonstrations.
Some protesters are demanding policy changes, while others want the elected government to fall.
“We want to change this government before elections [which cannot happen until 2016 at the earliest]. They are going to ruin the country,” opposition protester Petra Strum told Al Jazeera. “We can’t have a dialogue with people who insult us and call us fascists.”
A peace conference called by President Maduro showed few signs of bridging the divide. Leading opposition politicians, including twice-defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, are boycotting the talks.
Capriles is seen as moderate, compared to Lopez and other opposition leaders. “We are certain that those [opposition leaders] were not there…not because they didn’t want to go, but because they were subjected to the blackmail of neofascist and violent groups,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said on Thursday.