By Ezequiel Lopez and Christopher Sherman Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of anti-government activists marched peacefully Sunday to an upper-class Caracas district shaken by more than two weeks of unrest, trying to maintain the movement’s momentum during a long holiday break.
Afterward, about 1,500 protesters erected barricades, burned tires and threw rocks and fireworks at National Guard troops, who responded with tear gas in what has become a nearly nightly ritual of clashes since mid-February.
President Nicolas Maduro had sought to dampen protesters’ spirits by declaring a seven-day holiday weekend coinciding with Carnival and historical commemorations and by promoting the Sunday sale of subsidized food at government-run markets.
“Happiness will conquer the embittered,” Maduro said in a TV appearance at a recreation center. “The Venezuelan people have won because happiness and peace have conquered.”
Whether they headed for balmy beaches or joined the barricades in anti-government protests, many people are fed up with crippling inflation, shortages of food stuffs and medicine, unchecked violent crime and government mismanagement of the economy in a nation with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
Hundreds queued up at one central Caracas market, an increasingly common sight across the country, where coffee, flour, cooking oil, toilet paper and other staples have been in short supply for a year.
The unrest is Venezuela’s worst since President Hugo Chavez died of cancer a year ago and the opposition came within a hair of winning the presidency in April’s election, but it remains to be seen if it will spread to include the lower classes who benefited from Chavez’s generous social welfare programs.
Most of the marchers on Sunday, whether the students or their gray-haired elders clad in white shirts and wearing hats with the Venezuelan flag’s colors, hailed from the upper classes. But there were some from poorer sectors.
One marcher from the poor district of Catia said many people there had been intimidated into silence by pro-government militias but are now beginning to join the protests. “People there are starting to wake up. The insecurity has become unbearable,” said Liomar Moreno, a 21-year-old graphic design student.
Saturday night had been the first evening in 16 days when the wealthy, opposition Chacao district where Sunday’s march ended was not shrouded in tear gas from pitched battles between young protesters and security forces. But the confrontations resumed Sunday.
Elsewhere in Venezuela, protesters have maintained burning barricades in cities from Valencia in the industrial heartland to Merida and San Cristobal in the west.
By government count, 18 people have been killed and more than 260 injured in the unrest since Feb. 12.
Early Sunday, the government released 41 people arrested Friday in Caracas’ wealthy east as radicals hurled Molotov cocktails, rocks and bottles at National Guard troops. It said they had all been ordered to appear in court within 30 days.
Others were still in custody, including a top opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez.
The opposition has spurned Maduro’s attempt to engage in a “peace dialogue” until the government frees detainees. Other demands include creation of a “truth commission” to determine how those who died in protests were killed. Pro-government thugs are accused of gunning some down.
Maduro says the unrest constitutes a coup attempt by “the fascist right wing” and is backed by the United States. Washington denies the accusation and says Maduro is trying to silence the opposition by repressing free speech.
“Nobody is tiring here, and we’re all going to fight until (the government) falls,” said one marcher on Sunday, Carlos Eduardo Vega, who works for the food company Polar.
Chacao’s mayor, Ramon Muchacho, complained of fatigue from the violent tactics of student protesters who have made his district the epicenter of Caracas’ unrest. They lack clearly defined goals, he said.
“The student leaders need to set clear objectives for those in the streets. How are we going to change the government?” Muchacho said. “I think they should be preparing them for a long battle.”