CARACAS, Venezuela — Tens of thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro flooded the streets of Caracas amid confusion and tear gas Wednesday for what they've dubbed the "mother of all marches" against the embattled socialist leader.
Clashes between protesters, police and government supporters started early. Shortly after the march kicked off, state security forces fired tear gas at some pockets of protesters. Opposition leaders also said a young man was shot in the head at a protest and rushed to the hospital. Journalists waited outside the clinic for reports on his condition.
At a counter march of government supporters downtown, Energy Minister Luis Motta Dominguez told lines of protesters that reports about the young man were false. Dominguez said the man had been assaulted, but was on his way back from a soccer game and was not participating in the protests. He warned supporters that they would have to use all their political tools to keep at bay what he said were the "fascist" opponents of the socialist administration.
"We're a peaceful people, but we're also armed," he said.
Tens of thousands of protesters converged from 26 different points spread across the capital to attempt to march downtown to the Ombudsman's office. It's a route tens of thousands of angry protesters have attempted a half-dozen times in the past few weeks only to find their progress blocked by light-armored vehicles and a curtain of tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police officers.
At least five deaths have been blamed on the strong-armed response to protests that were triggered by the government-stacked Supreme Court's decision three weeks ago to strip the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers after a year-long power battle.
That move was later reversed amid overwhelming international rebuke and even a rare instance of public dissent in the normally disciplined ruling elite. But it had the added effect of energizing Venezuela's fractious opposition, which had been struggling to channel growing disgust with Maduro over widespread food shortages, triple-digit inflation and rampant crime.
With its momentum renewed, the opposition is now pushing for Maduro's removal and the release of scores of political prisoners. The government last year abruptly postponed regional elections the opposition was heavily favored to win and cut off a petition drive to force a referendum seeking Maduro's removal before elections late next year.
Opposition marchers included Liliana Machuca, who earns about $20 a month holding two jobs teaching literature. Her face was covered in a white substance to protect herself from the noxious effects of what she expected would be another day of dodging tear gas canisters. Although she doesn't expect change overnight, she said protesting is the only option she has after what she says are abuses committed by the government.
"This is like a chess game and each side is moving whatever pieces they can. ..... We'll see who tires out first," she said.
A short block away from where the opposition was gathering, a sea of red-shirted government supporters marched by calmly, some dancing to a salsa band that tried to provide a dose of normalcy to an otherwise tense situation.
Many were state workers like Leidy Marquez, who was bused in from Tachira state, on the other side of the country, along with co-workers at state-run oil giant PDVSA.
"The opposition is trying to provoke a conflict but they aren't going to achieve their goal," said Marquez, who wore a shirt emblazoned with the eyes of Chavez, a symbol of revolutionary zeal throughout Venezuela.
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.
Maduro was expected to address the counter march of government supporters later Wednesday, which is a holiday celebrating Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain two centuries ago.
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.
"We're convinced the country knows who the true coup mongers are and it's against them we will march tomorrow," the opposition said in a Tuesday late-night statement.
Foreign governments are also warning about the increasingly bellicose rhetoric and repressive stance of the government.
Maduro this week said he was dramatically expanding civilian militias created by the late Hugo Chavez and giving each member a gun. There's also concern that Wednesday's dueling marches could lead to clashes after the No. 2 socialist leader Diosdado Cabello said 60,000 die hard government supporters would circulate on motorcycles to prevent the opposition from reaching its planned destination. 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.