CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan riot police fired pepper spray and tear gas to disperse an angry crowd of several thousand anti-government demonstrators trying to make their way to congress on Tuesday in the country's largest and most violent protests in months.
The demonstrators were trying to accompany opposition lawmakers in a march to the National Assembly for a session where they planned to debate removing Supreme Court magistrates who issued a ruling last week removing the last vestiges of power from the opposition-controlled congress.
But police blocked the opposition's planned route, forcing protesters to change their plans and congregate outside a public housing unit with the signature of the late Hugo Chavez emblazoned on its facade. Residents from inside the building threw bottles on the demonstrators below while taunting them with loud "Chavez Lives" music and red shirts hung from their windows.
The crowd fled in multiple directions as a small group of youths, many with their faces covered, began launching rocks and throwing themselves against a police line. A water tank and anti-riot vehicles were brought in to control the crowd, which later the reassembled on a nearby highway to shouts of "the streets belong to the people."
Once there, the activists, some of them draped in Venezuelan flags and carrying signs that read "No More Dictatorship," advanced toward a giant barricade of riot control vehicles that every few minutes would fire tear gas to push the crowd back.
The government over the weekend backed away from the Supreme Court's ruling after strong international and domestic criticism.
But tensions remain high, and the opposition, which had been beset by divisions and struggling to draw people into the streets of late, seems more energized and united than it has in a long time.
"Our demands are crystal clear," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, standing beside a barricade of giant boulders hastily assembled by activists to block traffic heading downtown. "We all have to unite our forces because Maduro has chosen the path of dictatorship."
An opposition demonstration on Monday was attacked by pro-government groups, with two opposition lawmakers hospitalized with head wounds.
But Tuesday's demonstration was much larger and had the potential to provoke clashes because pro-government forces were staging a rival march of their own to the National Assembly.
"It's they who are trying to carry out a coup," socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello told the crowd of mostly government workers. "Everyone who is traitor of the motherland should be treated like an enemy in our territory."
The Organization of American States on Monday took its strongest measure yet rebuking Venezuela's slide toward authoritarianism. Seventeen member countries of the regional body said that the court ruling was "incompatible with democratic practice."