Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who bravely took to the streets on Wednesday in what they have dubbed as the "mother of all marches" faced Venezuelan authorities and Maduro supporters who tried to stop them with tear gas.
Two students died during the nationwide protests. One in Caracas and the other in San Cristobal. Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez delivered a speech to lines of state workers preparing to join a large countermarch denying the reports of their deaths and said, "We are a peaceful people, but we are also armed."
Anti-Maduro demonstrators faced the Venezuelan National Guard's tear gas grenades, the Bolivarian National Police's water canons, members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces and armed members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
"This is like a chess game and each side is moving whatever pieces they can. ..... We'll see who tires out first," said Liliana Machuca, a Venezuelan teacher who was marching in Caracas.
Maduro's second in command, Diosdado Cabello, said 60,000 die hard government supporters would circulate on motorcycles to prevent the opposition from reaching its planned destination.
On Wednesday, socialist supporters riding their motorcycles in groups moved to disrupt the anti-Maduro demonstrators in Caracas, who were converging from 26 different points across the capital, in their attempt to march downtown to the Ombudsman's office.
During a march in the Plaza La Estrella, shots were fired and Carlos Jose Moreno fell down. A man holding up his cell phone to film the incident said, "What happened to him?" There was blood on the ground. Another man said: "They shot him in the head."
A video shows a man lifted the 17-year-old student and placed him on a motorcycle to rush him to Clinicas Caracas where doctors pronounced him dead. His brother told reporters that he was on his way to play soccer when he got caught up in a shooting.
Leidy Marquez was among the state-run oil giant PDVSA employees from Tachira, who the Venezuelan government bused to Caracas for a red-themed counter-protest.
"The opposition is trying to provoke a conflict, but they aren't going to achieve their goal," said Marquez, who was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the eyes of Chavez, a symbol of revolutionary zeal throughout Venezuela.
The demonstrators on the Francisco Fajardo Highway far outnumbered the government's organized rally. They faced a barrage of tear gas bombs from Venezuelan law enforcement in what critics said was a violation of the Venezuelan constitution.
Some were forced to jump into the polluted Guaire river to escape the tear gas. Others risked falling when they walked on thin steel beam structure to cross over the river. While several fell ill with the tear gas, a pilot in a helicopter flew over the highway.
In San Martin, a shooting had dozens scrambling for cover behind a building, and in Santa Cecilia men in motorcycles also threw tear gas at demonstrators. The Wall Street Journal's Juan Forero saw red stenciled messages on walls in Caracas encouraging Maduro's supporters to take up arms.
The protests were not limited to Caracas. Demonstrators marched in Puerto Ordaz and carried a long Venezuelan flag. Attorney Ezequiel Monsalve wrote on Twitter that there were five wounded including Irma Bello, a teacher whose photo after an alleged beating went viral on social media.
Demonstrators also turned out to protest in San Cristobal, where there were tense confrontations. Paola Andreina Ramirez, 24, was shot dead, according to San Cristobal authorities. A photo of the identification she was carrying went viral.
In Valencia, demonstrators took over the Avenida Bolivar. In Valera, there were reports of vandalism. And in Maracay, there were reports of tear gas thrown into apartment buildings. Some residents who didn't want to risk injury or arrest were protesting from their homes with pots and pans.
The protests in Venezuela began with the Supreme Court's temporary decision three weeks ago to strip the opposition-controlled legislature of its last remaining powers. Before Wednesday protest, they had already caused at least five deaths and hundreds of arrests.
The government has tried to recover from the near-daily protests with its own show of force: jailing hundreds of demonstrators, barring former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles from running for office and standing by as pro-government groups violently attack opposition members of congress.
The president also signed orders on TV late Tuesday activating the "green phase" of enigmatic military plans to defend Venezuela against what he describes as U.S.-backed attempts to sow chaos and overthrow him. He also said authorities in recent hours had rounded up unnamed members of an underground cell of conspirators at Caracas hotels, including some armed people who were allegedly planning to stir up violence at the march.
Maduro didn't provide evidence to back his claim that a coup attempt was under way, and the opposition rejected his comments as a desperate attempt to intimidate Venezuelans from exercising their constitutional right to protest.
Maduro this week said he was dramatically expanding civilian militias created by the late Hugo Chavez and giving each member a gun. In the past, the groups known as collectives have operated like shock troops firing on protesters as security forces stand by.
"Those responsible for the criminal repression of peaceful democratic activity, for the undermining of democratic institutions and practices, and for gross violations of human rights, will be held individually accountable for their actions by the Venezuelan people and their institutions, as well as by the international community," the U.S. State Department said in a statement Tuesday.
The U.S. secretary of state says the Trump administration is concerned about the political turmoil in Venezuela and feels socialist President Nicolas Maduro is trying to squash the voice of his opponents.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tells reporters at the State Department that the U.S. is "concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard." He says Venezuela's government is not allowing the opposition "to organize in ways that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people."
Tillerson says the U.S. is watching the situation closely and is working with others, particularly through the Organization of American States, to communicate its concerns to Venezuela.
This BBSNews article originally appeared on News | WPLG.