CARACAS (Reuters) - Masked youths battled police, protesters burned and hung from lamp-posts effigies of President Nicolas Maduro and marchers demanded the “resurrection” of democracy on a volatile Easter Sunday in Venezuela.
Though millions of Venezuelans have headed for Caribbean beaches and family gatherings over the Easter period, student demonstrators have sought to keep a nearly three-month protest movement going with religious-themed demonstrations.
After a barefoot walk and a “Via Crucis” march in the style of Jesus’ tortured walk towards crucifixion earlier in the week, hundreds of demonstrators began Sunday with a rally denominated “Resurrection of Democracy.”
Easter marks the day Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead after being crucified.
“We’re staying in the street until we get our country back,” student leader Djamil Jassir, 22, told Reuters in a square where protesters displayed dozens of used gas canisters and bullets as symbols of repression. “This is the time to stand firm.”
Later, several hundred hooded protesters, many wearing Guy Fawkes masks, set up barricades in the eastern Chacao district of Caracas that has been a near-daily battleground during recent unrest in Venezuela since mid-February.
Chanting “Liberty!”, the youths threw petrol bombs, fired stones from slings, tore down advertising hoardings, and placed wires across streets blocked by debris.
Police responded with teargas and water-cannons, as residents banged pots and pans from windows in a form of protest. Some neighbors threw bottles of water and bags of ice down to the students from balconies.
Anti-Maduro protests since early February have led to violence killing at least 41 people, according to official figures. The dead have been from both sides of the South American nation’s political divide and from security forces.
Activists said a student was shot dead on Thursday night in Valencia city while raising cash for the Easter Sunday tradition of “burning Judas” - when neighbors set fire to effigies of hated figures in memory of the disciple who betrayed Jesus.
Gabriel Daza, 21, was constructing a model of a National Guard military officer, activists said via Twitter and in local media. If it is confirmed that his death was linked to the political tensions, he would be the 42nd fatality of the unrest.
Around Venezuela on Sunday, opposition supporters burned puppets of Maduro, the government’s powerful No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, and other senior officials. Effigies of a red-clad Maduro hung from several lamp-posts in Caracas.
“They’re taking us to the brink, they’re killing us,” one student, who asked not to be named, said before pouring kerosene over puppets of Maduro and Cabello tied to a railing in Caracas.
Government supporters, meanwhile, did the same to effigies of prominent opposition figures, with jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez proving particularly popular.
“The only Judases in Venezuela are Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma,” one Maduro supporter said on Twitter, referring to the three most hardline opposition leaders. “You all need holy water.”
In Petare, the biggest shanty-town in Caracas, residents burned effigies of opposition governor Henrique Capriles and mayor Carlos Ocariz, accusing them of failing to rein in opposition supporters to prevent deaths and damage.
NO “VENEZUELAN SPRING”
Despite the violence and protests of recent weeks, Maduro’s position does not appear under threat, with numbers on the street dropping and the armed forces seemingly firm behind him.
“One year into government, I will continue to fulfill my oath with the people,” said Maduro, who this week celebrated the anniversary of his election win to replace late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. “No-one will deny our right to be happy, free and independent,” he added via Twitter.
The troubles have been limited to a few areas of Venezuela’s main cities - and state TV has sought to project an image of normality throughout Holy Week, showing images of packed beaches, happy people, and officials praising Maduro.
The ugly side of Venezuela, though, was also on evidence on Saturday night in Caracas when a driver hit a protester during a street blockade. He tried to escape, but was caught and badly beaten by residents, a Reuters photographer saw.
Frustrated by successive election losses, the protesters originally took to the streets in early February demanding solutions to Venezuela’s rampant violent crime, soaring prices, and shortages of basic goods from flour to toilet paper.
Hardliners had hoped for a “Venezuelan Spring” that would oust Maduro, but they failed to bring millions onto the streets.
Maduro says protesters, encouraged by the U.S. government and international media, are seeking to topple him as happened to Chavez during a brief coup in 2002.
He wants to preserve the OPEC state’s popular welfare policies while tweaking his predecessor’s statist economic model. Critics say 15 years of autocratic rule have ruined what should be one of Latin America’s most prosperous economies.
Additional reporting by Christian Veron; Editing by Frances Kerry, Bernard Orr