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Caracas in turmoil as protests continue

Caracas, Venezuela - The main artery connecting pro-government neighbourhoods in the western section of Venezuela's capital with opposition strongholds in the east buzzed with activity, as dozens of Toyota Land Cruisers packed with security forces clad in riot gear raced across the city, sirens blaring. 

Hundreds of students opposing the socialist government of President Nicholas Maduro fought periodic battles with riot police in eastern Caracas on Wednesday, following the arrest of opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez a day earlier. 

Youths covering their faces smashed paving stones near Altamira Square in the upscale Chaco district, hurling rocks and at least one Molotov cocktail at riot police, who responded with tear gas. 

"We want the release of arrested students, we want the government to fight against scarcity [of basic goods] and we want our human rights respected," said 24-year-old student Ariana Venot as she stood with a group of friends watching the chaos. "They [security forces] shot a student today in Carabobo. Instead of helping the students, they are shooting us."   

Most of the demonstrators protested peacefully, but more than a dozen destroyed property and attempted to attack security forces. Some covered their faces with bandanas amid chocking clouds of white smoke; a few burned bags of garbage at intersections while others stood back, waving flags and photographing the action on smartphones. 

"In Altamira, the fascists are swallowing tear gas," Andres Izaara, the tourism minister, tweeted on Wednesday. Some politicians say a segment of the far-right opposition is coordinating the protests to destabilise and eventually try to oust elected authorities. 

Late on Wednesday, Maduro appeared on state television offering to start a dialogue with student leaders to "discuss how to bring peace". Students said his offer rang hollow.  

'No plan'

The latest round of unrest in Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves, erupted on February 12 when Lopez called supporters onto the streets to demonstrate against the government. Since then at least five people, including opposition and government supporters, have died in the violence.

Maduro and other politicians say Lopez is responsible for unleashing chaos and property destruction, charges his supporters deny.

Some opposition activists rallying on Wednesday said their aim is to force Maduro's resignation; others said they just want the government to address sky-high inflation, violent crime, food shortages and other bread-and-butter grievances. 

"There are many reasons for the protests: a lack of security, a bad economy and scarcity," Rey Quiros, a 27-year-old salesman, told Al Jazeera. "We are defending Lopez' struggle."   

Margarita Lopez Maya, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, said: "When we have so many hardships, student protests are normal."

Government backers acknowledge the country is facing serious problems, but say the opposition isn't going to solve them by protesting. "So far, the opposition hasn't put forward a plan for inflation and crime," said Jesus Guarota, a pro-government youth activist and independent consultant. "Supporters of Maduro, myself included, are working on these problems." 

Elected last year by a small margin following the death of iconic former president Hugo Chavez, the latest unrest is arguably the biggest challenge Maduro, a former bus driver, has faced during 11 months in office. 

Outside intervention 

Earlier this week Maduro expelled three US diplomats from the country. Maduro and some analysts accuse the opposition of orchestrating a campaign of destabilisation at the behest of Washington - similar to a coup attempt in 2002 that nearly ousted the elected government before popular pressure from demonstrators and members of the armed forces reinstalled Chavez as president. Chavez accused the US of backing the coup.

"They [some members of the opposition] are trying to create the conditions of ungovernability - a crisis situation - reminiscent of 2002," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan-American professor and author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Citizenship in Venezuela.

"The conditions are different [than in 2002], but they are willing to test the waters and see how far they can take this. It's not simply a spontaneous event … The demands in the street aren't to resolve crime - it's to overthrow an elected government, rather to resolve legitimate grievances." 

Recent demonstrations have been far smaller than the large opposition rallies held during the failed putsch in 2002. For their part, many students said they are not seeking to oust Maduro. 

"We are not asking him [Maduro] to quit, we just want him to take action [on crime and other social problems]," said Maria Hernandez, a 19-year-old chemistry student. "We have tried to work with the government but they won't ever reach an agreement [with us]."

Student activists denied having links to foreign groups, as government officials have repeatedly insinuated.  

The US, however, has a history of funding Venezuelan opposition groups, according to documents published by WikiLeaks and recent State Department budget figures. 

Speaking to reporters during a summit in Mexico on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama said: "In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people." 

Countries in South America, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, view the events differently. In a joint statement released on Sunday, they condemned "attempts to destabilise the democratic order" in Venezuela, in what seems to be a jab at Lopez and his supporters. The South American countries rejected "the criminal actions of violent groups that want to spread intolerance and hatred in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as a political tool".

'People will get tired'

The opposition has few electoral options at this point. Their candidates fared relatively poorly in local elections in December, and there is no possibility of holding a recall referendum for Maduro until 2016. These facts, according to some observers, mean more radical elements in the anti-Maduro camp, including Lopez, were willing to take aggressive street action to try to change the political equation.

"There is no real separation between different branches of the state today - the judiciary, electoral authorities, the army and even most of the media are controlled by the government," Marilyn Toledo, 20, told Al Jazeera. "This is why we protest."

Demonstrations are expected to continue through the week, but it's unclear whether they will intensify, what exact policy goals the sometimes-disparate groups of protesters are putting forward, or how much popular support the movement commands.

"There is a tradition in the countries of Latin America: When institutions fail and we don't have good politicians, the student movement takes the lead," Professor Lopez Maya said. "But if it becomes violent and goes on and on with no results, then people will get tired."

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEChris