CARACAS, Venezuela: Tens of thousands of students and other opponents of the Venezuelan government filled the streets of the capital Sunday, putting a damper on President Nicolas Maduro’s hopes that a mandated holiday might bring a respite from weeks of protests.
The march originated at four points near universities in Caracas that have been opposition hotbeds and converged on the Chacaito barrio, where opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was arrested Feb. 18 after being accused of incitement to violence.
Opposition leaders say the charges against Lopez are politically motivated and have demanded his release from the military prison where he is being held in isolation.
Each of the four “feeder” marches on Sunday had a theme built around a complaint against the Maduro administration: justice, scarcities, freedom and censorship.
Maduro earlier had declared mandatory holidays, hoping that the days off, when added to two previously scheduled holidays for Carnival celebrations, would induce demonstrators to leave the streets where violence has claimed 17 lives and left hundreds of people injured.
The march came a day after the release of 41 protesters detained late Friday by authorities in Altamira Square, a focal point of opposition to Maduro. Those arrested were among hundreds gathered to protest the erection of barricades by national guard units in an apparent bid to impede mass gatherings there.
Also on Saturday, Tachira state Gov. Jose Vielma Mora said two national guard members had been injured while trying to clear debris from streets in the state capital of San Cristobal, a scene of ongoing clashes between students and authorities.
On Friday, Maduro said a national guard member in Valencia died of a gunshot wound during what the president described as an ambush in central Carabobo state.
The government said Foreign Minister Elias Jaua would meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Ban has called on Maduro to open a dialogue with the opposition.
Maduro hosted a “peace conference” Wednesday that was criticized by some opposition leaders for not setting up a mechanism of negotiations between the two sides. Others said dialogue was impossible while Lopez remained in custody.
Residents of the Catia slum held demonstrations this weekend to protest the rise in violent crime in their barrio. The protest was unusual in that Catia has been a stronghold of backers of Maduro and, before him, the late President Hugo Chavez.
LOS ANGELES TIMES