Caracas – Venezuelans have held a new wave of demonstrations as both supporters of the government and opposition staged major rallies in a country that has been roiled by violence in recent days.
Pro-government “Chavista women” held a march “against fascism” on Saturday in Caracas, while the opposition staged a rally for “peace”.
At a pro-government rally in the capital, where an Al Jazeera correspondent estimated thousands in attendance, Caridad Blanco, a retired person, told Al Jazeera: “The opposition is causing the violence. I am afraid to go to Chacao [a pro-opposition area]. We are rallying here for peace and our homeland.”
“My life had improved greatly. In 1999, there were 300,000 pensioners. Now there are three million.
“My mother worked as an ironing lady. She had no pension before but now she does. This is an example of what our government has done,” she added.
Daisy Perez, a cleaning lady and government supporter, told Al Jazeera: “We have created more employment [during the socialist period], schools and universities have been built.”
An hour into the opposition rally, thousands of demonstrators had gathered, our correspondent estimated, but thousands more were seen heading towards the rally on foot and via the subway.
“At some point, the government will have to sit down and have proper discussions with the opposition,” Alexis Perez, a student from Simon Bolivar University at the opposition rally, told Al Jazeera. “We are facing a social crisis.”
|Venezuela’s Maduro calls for dialogue
Al Jazeera’s Chris Arsenault, reporting from the capital, said: “Today represents a classic show of force by both camps.
“They are trying to prove they have public support in what has become a drawn-out battle.
“I don’t imagine there will be serious violence today in Caracas because the rallies are happening in opposite zones of the city.”
Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and a main opposition leader, says that planned events are intended as peaceful protests to show public discontent over high crime, food shortages and other problems facing Venezuela.
Capriles has called on marchers to focus on demanding that authorities disarm pro-government “collectives” blamed for attacking demonstrators.
At least eight people have died and more than 100 have been injured in violence connected to the protests that initially began peacefully.
President Nicolas Maduro’s government warned it could cut off gas supplies to restless areas.
Protests began on February 2 in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate. Social media campaigns helped unrest spread to Caracas and other major cities, intensifying over the past two week.
Maduro, who denies any links to the armed groups, says the protests are part of a “coup d’etat in development” instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
Call for dialogue
US President Barack Obama earlier urged the Venezuelan government to address the “legitimate grievances” of protesters; remarks which Maduro said were interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
Maduro challenged Obama on Friday to meet him for talks. “I call a dialogue with you, President Obama… between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government,” he said.
“Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table,” Maduro told a news conference with foreign reporters.
Caracas and Washington have not exchanged ambassadors since their respective envoys were withdrawn in 2010. Venezuela has expelled eight US diplomats over the past year, including three on February 16.
Oil-rich Venezuela’s main customer for its key export is the US, yet strained relations between the countries have worsened under Maduro.
Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but under Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, the economy has faltered, violent crime has increased and inflation is some of the highest in the region.
Supporters of the elected government say their situation has improved because of subsidised food programmes, new universities, and health centres built by the state in long-neglected poor areas.