Racked by food shortages and political unrest, Venezuela swelled with what organizers are calling the "mother of all protests" on Wednesday. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital, Caracas, and other major cities across the country to rally against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who assumed office precisely five years ago.
Throughout the day, those rallies often devolved into clashes between demonstrators and security forces — chaotic, violent scenes rent by tear gas, tossed rocks and even two reported deaths.
Citing witnesses in Caracas, Reuters reports that Carlos Moreno, a teenage student who had not planned to join the demonstration, was shot in the head after "government supporters approached an opposition gathering and fired shots." The news service says he died in the hospital later.
Later in the day a 23-year-old woman named Paola Ramirez was also shot and killed by pro-government groups, according to The Associated Press.
They were not the first to be felled in the course of the anti-Maduro protests that have been mounting since late last month. As of last week, five protesters — including a 13-year-old boy — had died of injuries suffered in fights with riot police.
But the protesters who showed up Wednesday vowed to keep struggling against Maduro and voicing their displeasure with the state of the country.
"This is exhausting — but we won't give up until we achieve a better country and democracy," Luiza Mayorca, a lawyer and mother of three, told NPR's Phil Reeves in Caracas. "Every time we do something, that's what we feel: that the worst thing would be to stay home, let fear take over us. This government, this regime, is making life miserable, and we cannot accept it."
"We want to get out of all this oppression and dictatorship, all the mistreatment we have had — the hunger, the kids dying in the countryside, the poverty," another protester, an unemployed school teacher named Libertad Diaz, told Phil.
By several media accounts, hundreds of thousands of anti-Maduro demonstrators flooded city streets to protest bread scarcity, ballooning inflation — which several estimates peg at triple digits — and what they see as an increasingly dictatorial regime.
Protesters point to a moment a few weeks ago as proof of Maduro's ever-tightening grasp on the levers of power, when a Supreme Court loyal to the president attempted to nullify the opposition-dominated legislature. The court backpedaled and restored power to the body after the abortive attempt drew anger both in Venezuela and the international community.
Maduro's opposition is also demanding new elections, which were indefinitely postponed last year — mere months after Maduro also canceled a recall referendum that could have ousted him from power.
"What will end the phase in which our country currently finds itself? Allowing free and democratic elections and respecting the constitution, to put a stop to this coup d'état that's being staged and controlled by Maduro together with the Supreme Court," Henrique Capriles, a leading figure of the opposition, tells the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
Capriles, who Deutsche Welle calls "the opposition's most promising candidate for the coming elections in 2018," was banned last week from holding office for 15 years — a move Capriles says he does not recognize.
Maduro, for his part, has rejected the unrest as manufactured by forces outside Venezuela's borders.
"The US government, the state department, have given the green light, the approval for a coup process to intervene in Venezuela," Maduro said in a televised address Tuesday, according to The Guardian.
In response to Wednesday's massive protests, which had long been in the works, Al Jazeera reports Maduro ordered the Venezuelan military to march in Caracas in "defense of morality" and "in repudiation of the traitors of the country."
"From the first reveille, from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets ... saying, 'Long live the Bolivarian Revolution,' " he announced, referring to the populist "revolution" that brought his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to power in 1999.
The military presence did little to ease the upheaval, however — or to dissuade protesters like Diaz.
"We're going to go on struggling," she said Wednesday, "because the one who tires, loses."