Thousands of people, some carrying signs reading “Dictator Maduro!” and “Elections now!” in support of banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles, took part in marches across the country against unpopular leftist president Nicolás Maduro.
The demonstrations in the capital and several other cities came a day after Maduro’s government barred Capriles from running for office for 15 years.
The ban capped a tumultuous 10 day-crackdown that saw pro-government groups attack several opposition leaders.
The protests were triggered by the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the opposition-controlled legislature of its last vestiges of power, a move that was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation and even dissent within Maduro’s normally disciplined socialist leadership.
“Nobody can disqualify the Venezuelan people,” an emotional Capriles said from a stage Saturday as he called on protesters to march to the ombudsman’s office downtown.
As the sea of protesters approached the headquarters of state-run PDVSA oil company, they were met by rubber bullets and a curtain of eye-scorching tear gas.
Mayhem ensued, with riot police racing down windy streets, dodging objects thrown from tall apartment buildings as they deployed to squash the unrest.
Later, a small group of youths unsuccessfully tried to set fire to a Supreme Court office building.
The violence was condemned by the opposition leadership, who nonetheless blame Maduro’s obstinacy for fuelling the unrest.
They called for another protest on Monday. But with Caracas shutting down for the Easter holiday which Maduro extended by decree for three extra days they appeared to be saving their strength for a major demonstration called for 19 April.
At least 17 people were treated for injuries, according to Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor where the demonstration took place.
Around most of Caracas, checkpoints were set up to search cars and frisk bus passengers even miles away from the clashes. As night fell, many streets still reeked of tear gas and a small group of youth burned trash and tore down street signs at busy intersections in eastern Caracas.
As the most dominant figure in the opposition over the past decade, Capriles has been at the forefront of the protests, the most combative since a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014 in which dozens of people were killed, many at the hands of security forces.
The almost-daily churn of events in what the opposition calls an “ongoing coup” by the government has energised and united the normally fractious opposition.
While opposition leaders have insisted on peaceful protest, frustration built up over 17 years of polarising socialist rule in Venezuela is running high on both sides.
The protesters on Saturday included 26-year-old Victoria Paez, who sported a baseball cap bearing the slogan “There’s a Way!” from Capriles’ 2012 presidential run against the late Hugo Chavez.
“Every day, the government gives us more reasons to leave our homes and protest,” said Paez, who earns less than $20 a month as a chemical engineer. She said she’s thinking about joining a sister and scores of college friends who have left the South American country seeking a better life.
Her father, Carlos Paez, was pessimistic about Venezuela’s future.
“Unfortunately, if there has to be bloodshed for the government to change, it won’t be the first time in history,” he said.