Caracas: Armed with cooking pots in a potent symbol of Venezuela`s chronic food shortage, thousands took to the streets Saturday in the latest public rally against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
The protest, which fell on International Women`s Day, consisted mostly of female demonstrators who noisily clanged their cookware to show their discontent over scarcity of basic goods and insecurity they say has become a part of daily life.
"There is nothing, nothing, nothing," read a placard carried by one protester fed up with stores that habitually run out of provisions -- despite this nation`s vast oil wealth.
By midday, more than 2,000 demonstrators had assembled in the capital Caracas, with many more expected.
The rally was called by the country`s most prominent opposition leader, two-time presidential election runner-up Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by a whisker in April 2013 elections.
For more than a month, demonstrators have complained about chronic shortages of food staples like bread, sugar, milk and butter.
Venezuelans are also seething over rampant violent crime, and the arrests of protesters.
At least 20 people have now died since protests first erupted, giving Maduro his biggest test since succeeding late leader Hugo Chavez almost a year ago.
Hours before Saturday`s march, Capriles charged on Twitter that Maduro wanted to obstruct the demonstration.
"Our people have the right to protest and we will do it in peace," he said.
Venezuela`s protest movement has been marked by regular clashes between security forces and radical protesters. Dozens of claims of police abuse have been made.
Capriles has accused Maduro of promoting a "confrontation of people against people" after the socialist leader called on his followers to "enforce order."
"Little candle that is lit, little candle that we put out with our people," Maduro said this week.
The violence claimed two more lives on Thursday when a man who tried to dismantle an opposition barricade in Caracas and a riot police officer were shot dead.
The protests began early last month as a student movement but it has since been joined by Capriles and other opposition figures, all fed up with Venezuela`s runaway murder rate, chronic food shortages and high inflation of 56 percent.
But the opposition has also been divided.
The former mayor of Caracas` Chacao district, Leopoldo Lopez, spearheaded a strategy called "the exit" to push for Maduro`s resignation.
Lopez gave himself up to police in dramatic fashion on February 18 in front of thousands of supporters after the authorities accused him of inciting violence.
Capriles, meanwhile, has distanced himself from "the exit" movement, warning that "the conditions are not there to pressure for the government`s exit."
The former candidate, who officially lost to Maduro by 1.5 percentage points, has said that in order to succeed, the protests need the support of the poorer neighborhoods that, for the most part, have staunchly supported first Chavez and now Maduro.
Analysts say that while Maduro is facing the biggest challenge of his young presidency, his government will likely prove sturdy enough to withstand the pressure.