Thousands of antigovernment demonstrators throughout Venezuela continued marches and rallies throughout the country over the weekend, many of them skipping the traditional Carnival and Holy Week holidays to take part.
The demonstrations, part of a wave of nearly month-old protests that have left 18 people dead and more than 260 injured, were called in outrage at insecurity, government repression and shortages of basic goods.
"This is the people's struggle against the inefficient government. Maduro, you have lost today the streets of Venezuela because the streets belong to the people," Central University of Venezuela student leader Juan Requesens told nearly 20,000 people gathered in Caracas.
The students called for a "genuine dialogue" with the president and for discussion on ending the standoff marred by violence.
Several hours later, a group of radical protesters armed with sticks and stones gathered in the capital's Plaza Altamira and faced off with members of the National Guard who responded with water cannons, tear gas and birdshot.
Officials said the clash left 17 wounded from birdshot or suffering from gas inhalation.
The official death toll from the clashes between the government and protestors is said to be 18- although opposition leaders claim the body count is much higher. Although the Andean college town of San Cristobal is considered the flashpoint for the most recent round of demonstrations, antigovernment rallies quickly spread to the capital city of Caracas. Since the, the protests have spread to the cities of Barquisimeto, Valencia and Puerto Ordaz.
Meanwhile, the military and supporters of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro were gathering for ceremonies to mark the one year anniversary of the death of president Hugo Chavez. An heir apparent to Chavez's socialist 'Bolivar Revolution', Maduro narrowly won a special presidential election last year. However, the food rationing, skyrocketing crime and shortages of basic consumer staples that had been endemic under Chavez continued to worsen. Just months into Maduro's rule, he declared all of Venezuela's problems were caused by external 'threats' [meaning the USA- NANESB!] and imposed strict price controls while limiting commercial profits.
During the monthlong protests, Maduro has ordered the expulsion of journalists from CNN and Colombia's NTN network as well as three US diplomats. On Tuesday, the Maduro regime announced that they were suspending all diplomatic ties with Panama after Panamianian president Ricardo Martinelli suggested the Organization of American States (OAS) monitor the ongoing situation in Venezuela and attempt to mediate between opposition and the Maduro regime.