CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Venezuela's government fired tear gas and rubber bullets Saturday at some of the thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who poured into the streets of Caracas amid a weeklong protest movement that showed little sign of losing steam.
The demonstrations in the capital and several other cities came a day after Maduro's government barred top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years.
The ban capped a tumultuous 10 day-crackdown that saw pro-government groups rough up several opposition leaders and another seek refuge in a foreign embassy to escape arrest.
The protests were triggered by the Supreme Court's decision to gut the opposition-controlled legislature of its last vestiges of power, a move that was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation and even dissent within Maduro's normally disciplined socialist leadership.
"Nobody can disqualify the Venezuelan people," an emotional Capriles said from a stage Saturday as he called on protesters to march to the ombudsman's office downtown.
As the sea of protesters approached the headquarters of state-run PDVSA oil company, they were met by a curtain of eye-scorching tear gas and rubber bullets. Mayhem then ensued, with riot police racing down windy streets, dodging objects thrown from tall apartment buildings as they deployed to squash the outbreak of unrest.
Checkpoints for searches
Around most of Caracas, checkpoints were set up to search cars and frisk bus passengers even miles away from the clashes.
As the most dominant figure in the opposition over the past decade, Capriles has been at the forefront of the protests, the most combative since a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014. Dozens of people were killed in those protests, many by security forces.
Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, said Friday that the order stripping him of his ability to run in future elections only strengthened his resolve to resist on the streets.
"When the dictatorship squeals, it's a sign we're advancing," he said in a rousing speech surrounded by other leading opposition figures, many of whom themselves have been targeted. "The only one who is disqualified here is you, Nicolas Maduro."
Opposition demonstrations in Venezuela in the past were sometimes planned weeks in advance to guarantee high turnout. But now the almost daily churn of events in what's being called the "ongoing coup" — the government's moves to accumulate more power — has energized and united the normally fractious opposition.
Frustration running high
While opposition leaders have insisted on peaceful protest, frustration and aggression built up over 17 years of polarizing socialist rule in Venezuela is running high on both sides.
As Saturday's march began, protesters snatched a camera from crew members working for pro-government state broadcaster VTV, chasing them away from the crowd with kicks and insults. In another intimidation tactic, police also posted on social media mugshots of protesters taken undercover with a request for information about the whereabouts of the unidentified "generators of violence."
Leaders in the ruling party have accused the opposition of trying to provoke a bloodbath and its own coup. Maduro didn't comment Friday about the comptroller general's order containing the ban on Capriles' ability to run. But he but urged his supporters not to be distracted by tough language coming from "Capriloca," a play on the Spanish word for "crazy."
"The right wing's treason of our national interests is cause for indignation," Maduro said.
The protesters on Saturday included Victoria Paez, 26, who sported a baseball cap bearing the slogan "There's a Way!" from Capriles' 2012 presidential run against the late Hugo Chavez.
"Every day, the government gives us more reasons to leave our homes and protest," said Paez, who earns less than $20 a month as a chemical engineer. She said she's thinking about joining a sister and scores of college friends who have left the South American country seeking a better future.
While she said she was hopeful the world was beginning to see the injustices in Venezuela, her father, Carlos Paez, was more pessimistic.
"Unfortunately, if there has to be bloodshed for the government to change, it won't be the first time in history," he said.
The protest movement's immediate goal apparently is to force Maduro to call elections. Authorities last year canceled an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on Maduro, and no date has yet been set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place last year.
Together with jailed hard-liner Leopoldo Lopez, Capriles is the most popular opposition leader. With both seemingly out of the running, the government may be trying to manipulate the electoral playing field to leave the opposition with fewer viable options should the government bow to pressure and call presidential elections before they're scheduled in 2018, analysts said.
"However, it is a risky strategy that will probably backfire," Eurasia Group said in a report Friday. "The opposition is clearly fired up and this will further their cause."