Demonstrators rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas
By Alexandra Ulmer and Isaac Urrutia
CARACAS/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition was rallying across the nation on Thursday as part of a bid to strain security forces by staging anti-government protests in each of the volatile country's 335 municipalities.
The oil-rich but crisis-shaken South American nation has been convulsed by escalating protests over the last two weeks amid a punishing recession and accusations that Maduro has seized dictatorial powers.
In a worrying sign for Maduro, people in traditionally pro-government slums and low-income areas have blocked streets and lit fires during scattered protests this week. A crowd also broke through a security cordon at a Maduro rally on Tuesday, heckling him and throwing stones while bodyguards scrambled.
Authorities confirmed a fifth person had been killed during protests over the last week, as the opposition pushes an agenda that includes calls for an early presidential election and the freeing of jailed political activists.
Seeing momentum on their side, opposition leaders were urging Venezuelans to keep up the pressure across the country on Thursday in an effort to leave security forces too thinly spread to break up rallies.
Opposition activists accuse police and the National Guard of indiscriminate use of tear gas, including at clinics, and arbitrarily detaining people for simply being within the vicinity of protests.
"This is a struggle of resistance, whose fundamental objective is to wear them out, and see who breaks first," said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara in a video posted on Twitter.
"Will it be our desire to fight or theirs to repress? Will it be our desire to have a better Venezuela or theirs to obey the dictatorship?"
The opposition says Maduro made it clear to the world he was a dictator when the Supreme Court in late March assumed the functions of the opposition-led congress.
The court quickly rolled back on the move in the face of an international outcry, but it breathed new life into the fractured opposition movement.
Last week's government move to ban opposition leader Henrique Capriles from holding office for 15 years also fuelled demonstrators' outrage. Capriles was seen as the opposition's best presidential hope in elections scheduled for late next year.
A tropical downpour hurt turnout at a protest in Caracas on Thursday, with only a few hundred protesters showing up by midday. Some also stayed at home due to fears of clashes, especially with pro-government grassroots groups that the opposition blames for fomenting violence.
Still, a couple hundred protesters were also marching in the sweltering oil hub of Maracaibo near the Colombia border, brandishing signs reading "No to dictatorship!" and waving Venezuelan flags. Small marches also took place in Ciudad Guayana, in the jungle and savannah state of Bolivar, where protesters scrawled "elections now!" on the street.
"Maduro must know we cannot keep going like this," said carpenter Rafael Garcia, 41, who was protesting in the arid province of Paraguana. "I don't want to be here protesting during Easter holidays, but it's worth the effort because what we live through in the next few years depends on this."
Along with planned opposition marches that have dissolved into clashes, there have also been scattered reports of looting and impromptu nighttime protests, with demonstrators sealing off streets with makeshift barricades of trash or burning debris.
Maduro has drawn parallels between his own situation and that of his populist predecessor - the late Hugo Chavez - during a short-lived coup in 2002. He has also warned that an opposition government would slash social benefits like healthcare for the poor and subsidized food.
The opposition has responded that any social advances made under Chavez have been wiped out by an economic crisis that has brought widespread shortages of food and medicine.
Major anti-government protests in 2014 eventually fizzled out. But many Venezuelans are now geared up for next Wednesday when opposition leaders say they will stage an anti-government protest dubbed the "Mother of all Marches."
(Additional reporting by Efrain Otero in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, and Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown)