Thousands march in Venezuela over economic crisis, shortages

Demonstrators against Venezuela's economic crisis — facing sky-high inflation and shortages of food and consumer goods — took to the streets in their thousands Saturday, banging pots and demanding an end to President Nicolas Maduro's term.

Opposition leaders, fed up with shortages of milk, coffee, sugar, meat, toilet paper, diapers, deodorant and corn meal, and with Maduro's refusal to overhaul the increasingly state-managed economy, say the elected socialist should go.

Ex-lawmaker Maria Corina Machado — who was jailed after deadly riots last year for inciting violence — said Maduro "must step aside now, so the Venezuelan people can stand united again."

"The government needs to be changed urgently," Machado argued, at what opposition activists called the "March of Empty Pots."

She insisted that constitutional order — waiting for Maduro to be voted out — "cannot wait," even as some marchers chanted, and others wore tape over their mouths saying "we want to eat."

Many Maduro foes argue that the government has co-opted so many sectors of society that they have no real chance at the polls against the political heir of longtime leader Hugo Chavez.

Jesus Torrealba, leader of the activist coalition, said organizers want those who oppose the government to express themselves both at the polls and demonstrating on Venezuela's streets.

"I am here because of all the suffering we are going through," said architect Jose Salinas, 46. "There are food shortages, shortages even in drugstores, prices have gone up across the board, meat costs twice what it did recently."

Maduro is facing a dismal 22-percent approval rating, and three quarters of the population oppose his government, recent polls show.

Venezuela was already mired in economic woes before oil prices began their recent slide, but the sharp downturn in crude prices has been especially punishing for a country that relies on oil for 96 percent of its foreign currency.

With the precipitous drop of oil, Maduro has traveled in recent days to Algeria, China, Iran, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia as he makes an urgent appeal for cash.

In November, Caracas failed to convince the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, including top producer Saudi Arabia, to reduce production in order to halt the price drop.

This week Maduro even floated the idea of discussing raising the local price of gasoline (petrol).

The price has not been raised since 1989. Back then, a hike in gasoline and transport costs helped trigger a deadly wave of protests, rioting and looting remembered here as the Caracazo. Hundreds were killed — some analysts say as many as 2,000.

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