By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – Banging empty pots and brandishing signs saying “only the government is growing fatter,” Venezuelan activists in Caracas on Saturday protested food shortages in the crisis-stricken country.
The march by a few hundred people, quickly halted by security officials firing tear gas, built on two months of near-daily demonstrations against leftist President Nicolas Maduro, who critics say has plunged oil-rich Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history.
Protesters are demanding early presidential elections, freedom for jailed activists, and humanitarian aid to allow in scarce medicines and food.
Currency controls that crimp imports, as well as ailing local farms, have left many supermarket shelves empty.
Around 93 percent of Venezuelans cannot afford to buy enough food and 73 percent of them have lost weight in the last year, according to a recent study by three universities.
Children begging in front of bakeries, restaurants, or markets are now a common sight, while more and more people are salvaging food from the trash. Many in the middle class have had to cut back on meat or vegetables and instead get by on cheaper starches.
“Sometimes I only eat once or twice a day. Today I couldn’t find bread (for breakfast) at any bakery, and I came here because I can’t just stay home watching this country fall to pieces,” said Consuelo, a 60-year-old protester banging two spoons together at the march in western Caracas.
Traditionally a poorer, pro-government area, parts of western Caracas are now home to road barricades, graffiti reading “Maduro dictator!” and clashes between hooded youth and National Guards.
“It’s time for Nicolas Maduro to listen to the people and finally leave,” said Consuelo, adding that she prays every day for an end to the crisis.
DEATH TOLL HITS 64
But Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez, says he is not going anywhere.
He accuses street protesters of leading an “armed insurrection” designed to bring down socialism and allow big business to get its hands on Venezuela’s crude oil reserves, the world’s largest.
At least 64 people have been killed since the unrest began in early April, with the state prosecutor’s office on Saturday confirming another death.
Yoiner Pena, 28, died in the western state of Lara after being shot from a pickup truck near a protest in April, the office said in a statement.
In what he says is an attempt to bring “peace” to Venezuela, Maduro is creating a new super-body, known as a constituent assembly, to rewrite the national charter.
His opponents and even some dissenting voices from within the government have slammed the plan, however. The chief state prosecutor has said that creating the assembly without a plebiscite, as happened in 1999 when Chavez rewrote the constitution, threatened to “eliminate” democracy in Venezuela.
The opposition is depicting this round of protests as a last-ditch effort to stop Maduro from building a “Cuban-style” one-party system in Venezuela and avoid a full-fledged meltdown.
For many Venezuelans, daily life already revolves around trying to find food.
“Once a week I get up at 5 a.m. and I line up for six hours to buy the basic food basket,” said protester Solange Rey, 53.
Venezuelans are only allowed to buy staples once a week, based on the number on their identity cards.
“The rest of the week, I go from market to market looking for the best price,” added Rey, who used to make lunches for companies but had to stop because she could no longer find the products.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)