CARACAS, Venezuela – In the bubbling cauldron that is politically riven Venezuela, divining the government's motives is a favorite pastime. So as soon security forces stormed a handful of ramshackle camps that had been the haven for anti-government protesters the past month, Venezuelans immediately began speculating what was behind the surprise raids.
Some viewed it as a straightforward crackdown to restore order in besieged neighborhoods. Others saw an attempt to chill the nerve of student activists and keep them from returning to the streets. And, in a reflection of the country's bitter divisions, some in the opposition called it an effort to revive a waning protest movement as a way to distract Venezuelans from mounting economic woes.
About the only thing certain is that in the aftermath of Thursday's pre-dawn raids, President Nicolas Maduro wanted to project an image of strength and attack his foes. Speaking on national television, as he handed out another batch of homes to poor people, the socialist leader lambasted his opponents and blamed them for the death of a 25-year-old police officer in street violence that erupted after the raids — the first day of deadly clashes in almost a month.
"He was protecting the community of Chacao and was killed vilely by these right-wing assassins," Maduro said, referring to the leafy neighborhood in Caracas where the biggest of the four makeshift protest camps sat in front of the offices of the United Nations. "In face of this pain, we have to apply the firm hand of justice."
The bloodshed brought to 42 the number of people killed on all sides since protests began roiling the South American nation in February.
During the raids on the camps, 243 young protesters were arrested and carted off to jail. The government later presented what it said were dozens of homemade mortars, guns and Molotov cocktails seized during the operation.
The dismantling of the camps came as protests had lost much of their fervor amid an effort by moderate members of the opposition to sit down with the government and negotiate concessions such as more economic freedom for business, the release of jailed opponents and the filling of vacancies on the Supreme Court and electoral tribunal.
That's a strategy the Obama administration supports, but Venezuelan students and hard-line opposition members are boycotting the talks, which they consider a ploy by Maduro to deflect foreign criticism.
At the same time security forces in Caracas were cleaning up a moonscape of scattered clothes, tents and destroyed banners, U.S. lawmakers in Washington pressed State Department officials to endorse legislation that would ban visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials who crush demonstrations and violate human rights.
Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said some opposition leaders have urged the United States not to go forward with such a move.
"They have asked us not to pursue them at this time," Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
With the mass arrests, there's a risk for the government that the barricades that plagued much of Caracas' eastern half in February and March could return, said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"The logical thing from the government's perspective would've been to allow the camps to go on long enough until neighbors grew irritated and the protesters dissipate on their own," Smilde said in a phone interview.
But Oscar Valles, a political scientist at Caracas' Metropolitan University, saw it differently.
Even if the government isn't trying to goad hard-liners into action, stirring up animosities serve its interests, he said. "These attitudes are used by the government to legitimize political violence. It gives them some oxygen."
As soon as news of the raids broke, former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles took to Twitter to denounce what he called a "tired government strategy to hide the economic disaster and debacle with arrests and persecutions."
Indeed, a new survey by respected local pollster Datanalisis says that support for Maduro's rule is dwindling as food shortages and galloping 57 percent inflation take their toll on his base among the poor.
Maduro's popularity, at 37 percent, is at its lowest level since a little more than a year ago when he won election as successor to his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. Almost 80 percent of those surveyed, and half of those who defined themselves as government supporters, view the country's outlook as negative, the poll said.
Scarcities have replaced security as Venezuelans' top concern, according to the polling data.
"It's the economy that's really hurting Maduro," said Smilde.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report. Luis Alonso Lugo and Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.