CARACAS, (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters rallied yesterday to demand the “resurrection” of Vene-zuelan democracy while effigies of both President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders were paraded for burning in a local Easter Day tradition.
Though millions of Venezuelans have headed for Caribbean beaches and family gatherings over the Easter period, student demonstrators have sought to keep a nearly three-month protest movement going with religious-themed demonstrations.
After a barefoot rally and a “Via Crucis” march in the style of Jesus’ tortured walk towards crucifixion, the students gathered yesterday in a Caracas square for a demonstration denominated “Resurrection of Demo-cracy.” Easter marks the day Christians believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead after being crucified.
“We’re staying in the street until we get our country back, until we get democracy back,” student leader Djamil Jassir, 22, told Reuters in a square where protesters displayed dozens of used gas canisters and bullets as symbols of repression.
“This is the time to stand firm.”
Anti-Maduro protests since early February have led to violence killing at least 41 people, according to official figures. The dead have been from both sides of the South American nation’s political divide and from security forces.
The unrest has been Venezuela’s worst in a decade.
Even during Holy Week, a few dozen masked demonstrators with slingshots, petrol bombs and rocks have faced off most nights in east Caracas with police using batons and teargas.
Activists said a student was shot dead on Thursday night in Valencia city while collecting money for the Easter tradition of “burning Judas” – when neighbors set fire to effigies of hated figures in memory of the disciple who betrayed Jesus.
Gabriel Daza, 21, was constructing a model of a National Guard military officer, activists said via Twitter and in local media. If it is confirmed that his death was linked to the political tensions, he would be the 42nd victim of the unrest.
For Sunday, opposition backers planned to burn puppets of Maduro and senior officials in various parts of the country.
Government supporters planned to do the same with effigies of prominent opposition figures, with jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez proving particularly popular.
“The only Judases in Venezuela are Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, Antonio Ledezma,” one Maduro supporter said on Twitter, referring to the three most hardline opposition leaders. “You all need holy water.”
BEACHES AND BEATING
Despite the violence and protests of recent weeks, Maduro’s position does not appear under threat, with numbers on the street dropping and the armed forces seemingly firm behind him.
“One year into government, I will continue to fulfill my oath with the people,” said Maduro, who this week celebrated the anniversary of his election win to replace late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. “No-one will deny our right to be happy, free and independent,” he said via Twitter.
State television has sought to project an image of normality, showing images of packed beaches, happy people, and officials praising Maduro.
The ugly side of Venezuela, though, was on evidence on Saturday night in Caracas when a driver hit a protester during a street blockade. He tried to escape, but was caught and badly beaten by residents, a Reuters photographer saw.
Frustrated by successive election losses, the protesters originally took to the streets in early February demanding solutions to Venezuela’s rampant violent crime, soaring prices, and shortages of basic goods from flour to toilet paper.
Hardliners had hoped for a “Venezuelan Spring” that would oust Maduro, but they failed to bring millions onto the streets as they had wanted.
Maduro says protesters, encouraged by the U.S. government and international media, are seeking to topple him as happened to Chavez during a brief coup in 2002.
He wants to preserve the OPEC state’s popular welfare policies while tweaking his predecessor’s statist economic model. Critics say 15 years of autocratic rule have ruined what should be one of Latin America’s most prosperous economies.