CARACAS, Venezuela — Protests flared Wednesday in slums that have long been bulwarks of support for Venezuela's socialist leaders hours after a pro-government rally degenerated into heckling of President Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro was attending a rally in the poor eastern state of Bolivar Tuesday night when a crowd turned on him. The official broadcast of the event cut out, but videos circulating on social media show people throwing objects at the president's vehicle and shouting "damn you!" A witness said people threw stones, bottles and cold water at the president, whose approval ratings have dipped below 20 per cent as the country's economy has plummeted.
Later that night, hundreds of young men burned trash and clashed with police in scattered protests around the economically flailing country. The unrest notably included slums outside of Caracas and other cities that had long shunned any part in the near-daily protests that have embroiled middle class neighbourhoods .
"People went into the streets last night because we are very upset," said Wilfredo Martinez, who lives in the working-class Caracas neighbourhood of La Vega. "We're having a terrible time. We can't find food and sick people can't find medicine."
Dozens of police in riot gear stormed into his neighbourhood as dawn broke Wednesday to re-establish order and stop the looting of local stores.
Elsewhere, protesters burned government officials in effigy and barricaded streets to shut down their neighbourhoods . A 14-year-old boy was killed in protests Tuesday night in city of Barquisimeto, according to Congressman Daniel Antequera, apparently shot by government supporters. The boy was at least the third protester killed in recent days. Officials said Wednesday they were charging two police with killing a 20-year-old college student earlier in the week.
Opposition leaders seized on the videos of Maduro being harassed at the official event as evidence he can no longer travel freely in his own land.
"Leave already, Maduro. Wherever you go here, people hate you," two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said on Wednesday. The episode recalled an incident several months ago in which people chased Maduro down the street on the resort island of Margarita, banging pots and pans to express their anger.
The unrest if the strongest the country has seen since 2014, when protests left dozens dead — but the government's hold on power stronger than ever. Opposition leaders say the country has further soured on Maduro in the years since, and are calling for continued protests to demand immediate general elections.
Even churches became the focus of politicized clashes Wednesday as Venezuela began holy week celebrations. The government had given the whole country the week off work, and many predicted the protests would subside as Venezuelans took their customary Easter family vacations. Instead, the unrest intensified, with the opposition calling on their supporters to join them for mass.
Maduro called the protesters "antichrists" on his television show Wednesday, and said the opposition had lost its mind and was bent on sabotaging holy week.
Government supporters stormed a Caracas church that the opposition had singled out as the place where they would gather in the afternoon. They tussled with worshippers and police beneath the stained glass and vaulted ceilings of the church, and were eventually thrown out.
"The devil came in here, but we defeated him," said 76 year-old housewife Maria Ramirez, who joined others in chanting "liberty" as the government supporters were taken away.
Speaking outside the church, hardline opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said people should not let themselves be distracted by a handful of troublemakers when the country is on the brink of a major turning point. She called on supporters to take to the streets again across the country on Thursday.
"It was 10 or 15 people. Some are armed and some are aggressive. But it's a minority, they don't represent Venezuela," she said.
AP reporter Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this story.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .
Hannah Dreier, The Associated Press