CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on Saturday to mark 50 days of protests against the unpopular government of President Nicolas Maduro, with unrest gaining momentum despite a rising death toll and chaotic scenes of nighttime looting.
At least 46 people have been killed in the worst turmoil faced by Maduro since he won the presidency in 2013. Venezuelans from civilians to police have been killed, sometimes during increasingly frequent spates of looting or street melees.
Many Venezuelans are furious with Maduro’s government, blaming it for soaring inflation, shortages of everything from food to medicine, and a crackdown on human rights. They are demanding elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid, and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.
Major opposition marches took place across the oil-rich nation of 30 million on Saturday, with protesters in Caracas brandishing placards that read “No More dictatorship in Venezuela” while in the volatile border city of San Cristobal masked youths threw rocks, and a Reuters witness saw two protesters wielding machetes.
The Andean area near Colombia suffered a week of mayhem that included looting, prompting the government to send in 2,000 troops.
“We don’t want more deaths. We want salaries that mean something, and medicines. The government invests more in bullets and weapons than in food and education for this country,” said Maria Diaz, a 33-year-old lawyer standing in the torrential rain in front of security forces with some 8,000 other protesters in San Cristobal.
Opposition protesters say the government is trying to maintain its grip on power despite the economic crisis. More than 2,600 protesters have been arrested across the country, more than a third of whom remain detained, according to a local rights group.
The government, which says protesters are trying to foment a coup beneath pro-democracy rhetoric, held a counter-march in Caracas, with thousands of red-clad supporters singing and dancing. Officials frequently pop up on state television with photos of vandalized stores and blocked roads that they blame on the opposition.
In recent weeks, protesters have thrown everything from excrement to petrol bombs at security forces, who have used tear gas and rubber bullets to block marches. Opposition lawmakers have joined protesters, often facing tear gas themselves.
Two-time presidential candidate and de facto opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, led the Caracas march.
“Fifty days and they’ve assassinated 50 people... Despite everything, on day 50, amid more repression, there is more resistance and more fight for Venezuela,” said Capriles, surrounded by supporters.
He was recently barred from holding public office for 15 years and said this week that his passport was confiscated before a flight to New York, where he was set to visit the United Nations and denounce human rights violations.
On Thursday, the United States imposed sanctions on the chief judge and seven other members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court and President Donald Trump described Venezuela’s humanitarian situation as “a disgrace to humanity.”
Maduro responded by telling Trump to stop meddling in Venezuela’s affairs.
Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Bernard Orr