March 12, 2016 / 6:11 PM / a year ago

Venezuela opposition launches protests, Maduro counters

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition launched a new protest campaign on Saturday to oust President Nicolas Maduro, but support was thin and the ruling Socialists countered it with their own "anti-imperialist" rally.

Though thousands on both sides took to the streets of Caracas, neither march recalled the passionate rallies of recent years, with many Venezuelans exhausted by an economic and social crisis that seems to be worsening.

The opposition alliance is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to oust Maduro via protests, a recall referendum or a constitutional amendment to cut his term.

They hope to capitalize on anger over a deep recession, triple-digit inflation and rampant insecurity.

"Venezuela is in chaos ... more misery, more crime and more destruction," said Ruth Briceno, 35, a law student among several thousand opposition supporters in wealthy east Caracas.

Two years ago, the opposition mobilized tens of thousands of people in nationwide protests. For weeks, Venezuela's streets were filled with tear gas and burning trash.

Similar protests have begun in the western city of San Cristobal, where such rallies often start, though they have yet to hit the capital.

An opposition supporter holds a placard that reads, "Maduro, resigns", during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, March 12, 2016.Carlos Garcia Rawlins

On the other side of Caracas, red-clad government supporters protested against U.S. President Barack Obama's renewing of a decree sanctioning various Venezuelan officials.

"We're here to defeat Obama's decree. It's stupid," said Raiza Sucre, 50, a state employee. She boarded a government-funded bus at midnight to arrive in Caracas at 5 a.m. (1000 GMT) for the rally that also drew several thousand protesters.

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From a stage, speakers blasted out "Yankee Go Home" and a recording of the national anthem sung by former leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013, before Maduro gave a thundering speech blasting Obama and his domestic foes.

"Let them come for me. Nobody's giving up here!" Maduro said, before mocking Henry Ramos, leader of the opposition-controlled legislature. "I imagine him in Miraflores (presidential palace.) My God, save us from that! There'd be a national insurrection a week later."

Lacking the charisma, oratory and financial muscle of his popular predecessor, Maduro has failed to draw out the crowds and enthusiasm of Chavez's rule.

The multi-party opposition coalition, too, may struggle in its bid to get people out onto the streets after the 2014 protests failed to bring about change.

"I was expecting more people today; we have to pressure this government to go," said painter Rafael Araujo, 62, at the opposition event, holding a placard that read: "Resign before the people turn on you!"

Reporting by Girish Gupta and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Richard Chang

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