By Diego Oré
CARACAS Venezuela's opposition parties on Monday launched a new round of protests aimed at forcing President Nicolas Maduro from power and ending 18 years of socialist rule, but they fell well short of the massive demonstrations of the past. The turnout for the first rallies of 2017 may have reflected opposition supporters' disillusionment after last year's failure to bring about a referendum to recall Maduro, who is presiding over an unprecedented economic crisis in the OPEC nation.Venezuela is suffering from three years of economic contraction and runaway inflation, with many of its 30 million people skipping meals and facing long lines for scarce products.That has made Maduro, the 54-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, deeply unpopular. But compliant courts and election authorities blocked the referendum that could have brought his rule to an early end and sparked a presidential vote. "We sought a recall referendum and they took it away. We want regional elections and they don't want to let us have them," said housewife Zoraida Castro, 46, during a march to the National Election Council's office in southern Ciudad Bolivar city.
"This government is scared of votes, and the election council is the instrument they use to avoid them." The opposition Democratic Unity coalition is demanding dates for regional elections supposed to happen this year, and also urging Maduro to hold a new presidential ballot given the magnitude of Venezuela's economic and social crisis.His six-year term is due to end in early 2019.
Various opposition rallies around the country attracted hundreds of supporters each, witnesses said, but they were a far cry from the estimated 1 million who turned out for one Caracas protest last year. In Caracas, where several thousand demonstrators turned out in total, some blocked a highway and shouted "Maduro out!" until security forces dispersed them with tear gas.
Security forces also fired tear gas at some opposition protesters in the volatile western state of Tachira as they sought to reach the election board's local office, witnesses said. Some demonstrators offered bags of flour to police in an attempt to show solidarity during a time of food scarcity.Government supporters, who accuse the opposition of seeking a coup with U.S. connivance, were also marching on Monday, which is a politically significant day for Venezuelans: the anniversary of the 1958 fall of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. "It's a day of struggle in Venezuela," said coalition secretary general Jesus Torrealba, in Barquisimeto town to show solidarity with a Catholic archbishop whose residence was recently attacked after he criticized the government. (Additional reporting by German Dam in Ciudad Bolivar, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Paul Simao)
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2017 22:17:23 IST