Caracas: Protesters planned on Monday to block Venezuela’s main roads including the capital’s biggest motorway, triggering fears of further violence after three weeks of unrest left 21 people dead.
The wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez started a vigil on Sunday outside the prison where he is being held, pressing for permission to visit him after he spent a month in isolation.
President Nicolas Maduro said Sunday that he wants “elections now,” referring to elections for governors which were supposed to be held last December, and those for mayors scheduled for this year. A presidential election is scheduled for 2018.
“I am ready for what the Electoral Power says,” insisted Maduro, who won the 2013 election by a narrow margin.
Venezuela has seen near-daily protests since the beginning of April, with opponents of Maduro demanding his ouster.
Maduro has called for local elections in Venezuela, but the government has ruled out voting this year at presidential level as opposition leaders have demanded.
The opposition blames Maduro for the unravelling of the oil giant’s once-booming economy, leaving the country with critical shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
The spark that set off the near-daily protests was an attempt by the Supreme Court to take over the powers of the opposition-dominated Congress.
Most of the demonstrations have degenerated into riots and clashes with security forces, who dispersed them using tear gas and rubber bullets.
The government and the opposition have accused each other of fomenting the deadly violence that has also seen hundreds of people detained or wounded and businesses looted.
The latest victim, Almelina Carrillo, 47, succumbed to injuries suffered when she was struck in the head by a bottle thrown from a building during the march in Caracas.
Interior Minister Nestor Reverol called her “another victim of the Terrorist Right, which is full of hatred.”
“We will not rest until we capture those responsible for this repugnant crime,” he added.
The opposition has said it will use the momentum to keep taking to the streets demanding elections and pushing for the release of political prisoners.
Thursday marked one of the most violent days in the latest wave of protests, with the Caracas neighbourhood of El Valle the scene of shootings, looting and pitched battles between demonstrators and police officers, who forced the evacuation of a maternity ward.
Eleven people died that day alone.
Maduro says he has “evidence” that opposition lawmakers Jose Guerra and Tomas Guanipa were involved in those deadly riots.
The opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) has denounced “a sequence of political persecution against important leaders,” lawmaker Enrique Marquez was quoted as saying by the El Encimulo news website.
Maduro is pressing the opposition to resume dialogue, frozen since last year after it accused the government of not complying with agreements which include the call for elections.
“I ask Pope Francis from here on out to continue to accompany us in the dialogue, because there is a conspiracy in Rome and here as well against dialogue in Venezuela,” he said.