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At Least 3 Die in Venezuela Protests Against Nicolás Maduro

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protesters demanding elections and a return to democratic rule jammed the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities on Wednesday. National Guard troops and government-aligned militias beat crowds back with tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons, and at least three people were killed, according to human rights groups and news reports.

President Nicolás Maduro defied international calls, including a plea from the American State Department, to allow peaceful assemblies and ordered his forces into the streets. Some demonstrators, wearing masks to protect themselves from tear gas, fought back with firebombs.

Still, despite the deaths in recent protests, now numbering seven, Wednesday’s rallies attracted thousands of people, the latest in a string of demonstrations against the increasingly autocratic rule of Mr. Maduro. Labeled by organizers “the mother of all protests,” it showed that a sustained movement in the streets against Mr. Maduro may now be forming.

Opposition leaders called for more rallies on Thursday.

Carlos Moreno, 17, was fatally shot by a pro-government gang on Wednesday, according to witnesses and local news reports.

He was attacked after hundreds of pro-government gang members arrived and surrounded protesters, throwing tear gas canisters, Arturo Ríos, a witness, said in an interview. Mr. Ríos said the group then began to open fire.

“They shot the boy through the head,” Mr. Ríos said. “It’s not fair. He could have been a friend of mine.”

Provea, a human rights group, said a second person had been killed and 400 people had been arrested. On Wednesday night, the government said that a sniper had killed a member of the National Guard in an area outside Caracas.

The anti-Maduro protests came after an attempt last month by Venezuela’s Supreme Court, controlled by loyalists of the president, to dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature. The move touched off an outcry in the country and was internationally condemned as leaving Venezuela a dictatorship in all but name.

While Mr. Maduro ordered the court to reverse much of the ruling, the lawmakers remain essentially powerless. In the weeks since, the president tightened his grip, barring a main opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, from holding political office for 15 years. Mr. Capriles narrowly lost to Mr. Maduro in a presidential election in 2013 and was seen as his main challenger for elections next year.

Marching with protesters on Wednesday, Miguel Pizarro, an opposition legislator, outlined their demands in an interview. They included setting election dates, freeing political prisoners and allowing legislators to write laws.

“Today, we are beginning a new stage in the democratic struggle to arrive at elections,” he said. “Our first objective is to mobilize, to show that we are the majority.”

While past protest movements by the opposition have often sought to topple the leftist government — one in 2002 even briefly deposed Hugo Chávez, the president at the time — the current wave has a more modest goal: a timetable for elections, which the opposition believes it will win.

“In the past, the opposition focused on getting rid of Chavismo, which proved unrealistic,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group. “This time is different.”

Pro-government rallies also formed, and in a defiant address on Wednesday, Mr. Maduro said he welcomed elections, vowing that leftists would trounce the opposition. “I want us to prepare ourselves so we have a total electoral victory,” he said. However, he offered no date for a vote.

Instead, the government met protesters with tear gas and water cannons. Some demonstrators took refuge in a nearby river.

The leftist movement, weakened by a failing economy and food shortages, is almost certain to lose its grip on power in a popular vote, according to polls. The country’s rulers already postponed elections for governors last year.

There were also signs that the lower middle class and the poor, who benefited most from Mr. Chávez’s programs and who steered clear of opposition protests in 2002 and 2014, might be willing to join the demand for elections.

Demonstrations in recent weeks have erupted in poor districts of Caracas, the capital, which have suffered most from shortages of food and medicine. And there were signs that many from those areas had come to the streets again on Wednesday.

“I live in a barrio, and the people there go around begging for food,” said Beatriz Bustamante, a 61-year-old from the Petare neighborhood, a poor district in which opposition support is strong. Ms. Bustamante blamed the government for rising crime, including the death of her only son, who was killed during a robbery.

Even some of the loyalists sent out by Mr. Maduro said they doubted him. “I don’t understand what is going on” in this country, said DeManuel Hernández, a 24-year-old militia member.

“Some say there’s an economic war, but I’ve also heard that the president doesn’t understand how to control the economy,” he said.

Not far from Mr. Hernández, a crowd had gathered in support of Mr. Maduro. But it numbered only in the few thousands, far less than in previous marches or the huge crowds of the opposition, which shut down highways and the city center.

Still, many there defended the president.

“We came to support Nicolás Maduro and the legacy of Chávez because we can’t lose the great social advances of the revolution,” said Vlacmy Solorzano, 40, a member of a government food distribution group.

But even Ms. Solorzano said elections needed to be held soon.

“If we don’t win, we have to accept the result,” she said.

Correction: April 21, 2017

An article on Thursday about political unrest in Venezuela misstated, in some copies, the total number of people who had died in recent protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. It was seven, not eight.

©, 2017, The New York Times

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