Published: 2017-04-20 09:55:33 BdST
Opposition supporters protested in Caracas and other cities in what they called "the mother of all marches," denouncing Maduro for eroding democracy and plunging the oil-rich economy into chaos.
Crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands, including Maduro supporters who held a counter-demonstration in the capital at the urging of the president, and clashes were reported across the country during the most sustained protests since 2014.
A demonstrator carries Venezuela's flag while clashing with riot police during the so-called 'mother of all marches' against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela Apr 19, 2017. Reuters
The deaths mean eight people have now been killed during protests in Venezuela this month. The opposition blames the deaths on security forces and alleged paramilitary groups. Over 400 people were arrested during protests on Wednesday, rights group Penal Forum said.
The opposition called for another protest on Thursday, raising the spectre of prolonged disruption in Venezuela.
"Same place, same time," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles on Wednesday night. "If we were millions today, tomorrow we'll be more."
Wednesday's duelling marches drew parallels to the clashes between pro and anti-government protesters in 2002 that triggered a brief coup against late President Hugo Chavez.
Demonstrators clash with riot police during the so-called 'mother of all marches' against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela Apr 19, 2017. Reuters
Later on Wednesday in the opposition hotbed of San Cristobal near the Colombia border, university student Paola Ramirez died after being shot by men pursuing her and her boyfriend, according to relatives and witnesses.
"We were on a motorbike and they were following us, shooting," her boyfriend told Reuters. "I left her on a block where she was going to find her sister and I went to hide the bike. I heard shots and when I arrived she was on the ground. I tried to protect her as much as I could," he added, sobbing in front of her body.
The public prosecutor's office said it was investigating both cases.
The opposition attributed both deaths to groups known as "colectivos," armed government supporters who are frequently accused of involvement in confrontations during protests.
An opposition demonstrator throws a petrol bomb while clashing with riot police during the so called 'mother of all marches' against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Apr 19, 2017. Reuters
A National Guard sergeant was killed by a sniper during "violent protests" in Miranda state and a colonel was injured, the human rights ombudsman Tarek Saab tweeted on Wednesday night.
Waving the country's red, yellow and blue flags and shouting "No more dictatorship" and "Maduro out," demonstrators clogged a stretch of the main highway in Caracas. Troops fired tear gas in Caracas neighbourhoods, San Cristobal, the depressed industrial city of Puerto Ordaz, and the arid northern city of Punto Fijo.
"We have to protest because this country is dying of hunger said Alexis Mendoza, a 53-year-old administrator marching in the Caracas neighbourhood of El Paraiso. "There are a lot of people in the opposition and they are full of courage."
A demonstrator throws back a tear gas grenade while clashing with riot police during the so-called 'mother of all marches' against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela Apr 19, 2017. Reuters
The court's move nonetheless fuelled long-simmering anger over the ruling Socialist Party's handling of the economy. The OPEC country suffers from Soviet-style shortages of food and medicines and triple-digit inflation.
The opposition is demanding early elections, the freeing of jailed politicians, humanitarian aid, and respect for the autonomy of the opposition-led legislature.
The marchers gathered at more than two dozen points around Caracas, although some were stalled by authorities closing around 20 subway stops. Protesters had hoped to converge on the office of the state ombudsman, but as in previous attempts they were blocked by the National Guard. The protests trailed off with youths throwing rocks squaring off against security forces spraying tear gas.
Maduro says "anti-Christs" defeated
Maduro has charged that the opposition is trying to relive the 2002 coup against Chavez, his predecessor and mentor, by blocking roads and vandalizing public property.
Riot police take positions during the so called 'mother of all marches' against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Apr 19, 2017. Reuters
"Today the people stood by Maduro!" the president said, blasting his rivals as "anti-Christs." "We've triumphed again! Here we are, governing, governing, governing with the people!" he added, before breaking into song and dance.
Analysts say there is less likelihood of a coup against Maduro because Chavez launched a broad purge of the armed forces following his brief ouster.
Some unhappy Venezuelans also steer clear of protests, fearful of violence, cynical that marches can bring about change, or too busy looking for food amid the recession.
Venezuela benefited for years from oil-fuelled consumption and many poor citizens rose into the middle class. But the 2014 collapse in oil prices left the government unable to maintain a complex system of subsidies and price controls. Snaking grocery lines are now a common sight and people routinely say they skip meals and cannot find basic medication.
Further spurring outrage was a decision by the national comptroller's office earlier this month to disqualify opposition politician Capriles from holding office for 15 years, dashing his hopes for the presidency.
The elections council, which is sympathetic to the government, has delayed votes for state governors that were supposed to take place last year.
Demonstrators also gathered on Wednesday in the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz, home to Venezuela's struggling state-run mining companies, and the oil city of Maracaibo.
"I've just graduated ... and what I've got in the bank isn't enough for a bottle of cooking oil," said Gregorio Mendoza, a 23-year-old engineer in Puerto Ordaz. "We're poorer every day."