CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces quelled rowdy protesters with tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray in Caracas today after blocking an opposition rally against unpopular socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Police pepper-sprayed various opposition leaders, witnesses said, including National Assembly head Julio Borges, twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, and Lilian Tintori, wife of prominent jailed activist Leopoldo Lopez.
The clashes began after authorities closed subway stations, set up checkpoints and cordoned off the capital city’s Plaza Venezuela, where Maduro’s foes had planned to meet for their latest demonstration.
In one street, kneeling women sang the national anthem as neighbors banged pots-and-pans from nearby buildings in a show of anger against a government they blame for a deep recession that has led to shortages of food and basics.
“We’re going to get rid of them, but we have to fight,” said Jose Zapata, a 57-year-old electrician, as he marched with a stick in his hand. Some demonstrators threw stones and bottles.
Supporters of the 54-year-old Maduro organized their own rally, in a volatile scenario seen many times during the 18 years of leftist rule in the South American nation.
Prisons Ministry worker Juan Aponte accused opposition parties of abetting a U.S.-led plot to topple Maduro, who has ruled Venezuela since the 2013 death of Hugo Chavez.
“They want an intervention in Venezuela,” said the 34-year-old, who wore the red colors of the ruling Socialist Party.
Various protests were also taking place in other cities.
Tensions have soared in the oil-producing nation’s long-running political standoff after the pro-Maduro Supreme Court last week annulled the opposition-led congress’ functions.
Although it retracted that ruling over the weekend, the National Assembly remains powerless due to previous court judgments.
The renewed instability sent Venezuelan bonds lower, with the benchmark 2027 paper’s price off 4.4 percent.
Foreign pressure on Maduro has risen as opposition protests restarted late last week.
On one major highway in Caracas today, National Guard troops repeatedly fired tear gas to quell knots of demonstrators, who hurled objects back.
“Here the world can see the dictatorial path Mr. Maduro has chosen,” said Capriles.
Stung by criticism from most of Latin America of an erosion of democracy, Maduro says the U.S. government and other foes are whipping up hysteria against him to lay the ground for a coup.
Maduro’s administration is particularly furious with Organization of American States head Luis Almagro, who is leading regional condemnation.
The regional bloc on Monday urged Venezuela to restore congress’ authority and guarantee separation of powers, but Venezuela’s representative walked out, as did the envoy from fellow leftist Bolivia, which holds the OAS presidency.
“The OAS has surpassed itself in aggression against Venezuela,” Maduro said late on Monday. “It is a real court of inquisition, carrying out abuses and vulgarities.”
Venezuela’s opposition won a National Assembly majority in late 2015, but the Supreme Court has overturned almost all its measures.
The legislature planned to start proceedings later on Tuesday to have the tribunal’s judges removed, but that would only be a symbolic rebuke since it has no power to act.