CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on both sides of the nation’s bitter political divide took to the streets Saturday after two weeks of mass protests that have President Nicolás Maduro scrambling to squash an increasingly militant opposition movement.
In Caracas, tens of thousands of opponents of Maduro filled several city blocks in their biggest rally against his 10-month-old government. Across town, at the presidential palace, Maduro addressed a much smaller crowd of mostly female supporters dressed in the red of his socialist party.
The dueling protests capped a violent week in which the government jailed Leopoldo López, who roused the opposition after its defeat in December’s mayoral elections, and dozens of other student activists. The violence has left at least 10 people dead on both sides and injured more than 100.
At the opposition rally, in wealthier eastern Caracas, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles urged supporters to keep pressuring the government to resolve problems ranging from rising crime to galloping 56 percent inflation in the oil-rich nation.
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“If you (Maduro) can’t, then it’s time to go,” Capriles told the crowd, many of them dressed in white and wearing baseball caps in the red, blue and yellow of Venezuela’s flag.
Capriles, who has frequently criticized López’s strategy of taking to the streets without much support beyond the opposition’s middle-class base, downplayed those differences Saturday. Recalling his four-month confinement in 2002 in the same military prison where López is being held, he vowed to fight for his fellow opposition leader’s release.
“We may have our differences, but there’s something bigger than us all that unites us, which is Venezuela, damn it!” Capriles told the roaring crowd. Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, was at his side.
After the opposition rally broke up, in a pattern that has been seen in past demonstrations, about 1,000 stragglers erected barricades of trash and other debris and threw rocks and bottles at police and National Guardsmen. The troops responded with volleys of tear gas to prevent the students from reaching a highway and blocking traffic.
No injuries were reported.
Elsewhere in the capital, government backers filled a wide avenue in a boisterous march to the presidential palace accompanied by sound trucks blaring music and slogans. The crowd danced in the street to live music and carried photos of the late president, Hugo Chávez, while vendors hawked calendars emblazoned with his image.
First lady Cilia Flores called on supporters to be alert for attempts by the opposition to incite deadlier violence in the days ahead to create conditions for a Ukraine-like power grab.
“Venezuela isn’t Ukraine,” Flores, told the crowd. “The right-wing fascists aren’t going to be able to impose themselves.”
Maduro said he won’t pull security forces off the streets until the opposition abandons violence and accepts his invitation for dialogue.
“This elected president, the son of Chávez, is going to keep protecting the people,” he said while holding up what he said was an improvised explosive device used by protesters to attack government buildings and security forces. “Nobody is going to blackmail me.”
The opposition protest in Caracas coincided with marches across the country, most of which also ended peacefully.
In San Cristóbal, a city on the western border that has experienced some of the most violent clashes, protesters criticized high crime, food shortages and inflation that have made life difficult for many in a country that once had one of South America’s highest living standards because of its massive oil reserves.
“This is a rich country and we can’t even buy a kilo of flour, a rich country but we live in misery,” Marta Rivas, 39, said as she joined the San Cristóbal march.
The current political turmoil in Venezuela was sparked Feb. 12 by opposition marches that killed three people: two opposition members and a government supporter.
Authorities blamed opposition leader López for fomenting the violence and jailed him on charges including arson and incitement, prompting anger from his supporters at home and criticism from abroad.
The opposition accuses the National Guard and armed militia groups of attacking protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds, and beating up and menacing some of the hundreds of activists who’ve been jailed nationwide.
Maduro for the first time Friday said that he’s investigating whether security forces opened fire at the Feb. 12 protests and said that as former member of Venezuela’s leftist underground, whose members were hunted down and tortured by state agents during the 1970s, his government has shown zero tolerance for human-rights abuses.
But he spent most of a nearly three-hour news conference Friday denouncing what he called a “campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution” by foreign media.
He also bristled at criticism from abroad, including a statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who faulted Venezuela’s government for, among other actions, confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and assembly and revoking the credentials of reporters from TV channel CNN en Español.
“This is not how democracies behave,” Kerry said, urging all sides, including the protesters, to refrain from violence.