Venezuelans again shut down capital to protest government

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Anti-government protesters play cards on a highway during a national sit-in against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, May 15, 2017.

Anti-government protesters play cards on a highway during a national sit-in against President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, May 15, 2017. (Photo: AP)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of protesters hauled folding chairs, beach umbrellas and coolers onto main roads across Venezuela on Monday for another national demonstration against the socialist government.

The "sit-in against the dictatorship" was the latest in a month and a half of street protests against President Nicolas Maduro that have resulted in dozens of deaths. Even before the protest started in Caracas, many businesses closed and taxi drivers suspended work in anticipation of traffic disruptions in the capital.

Opposition leaders are demanding immediate presidential elections. Polls say the great majority of Venezuelans want Maduro gone as violent crime soars and the country falls into economic ruin, with triple-digit inflation and shortages of many basic foods.

The European Union is also calling for Venezuela to hold elections. EU foreign ministers said Monday that "violence and the use of force will not resolve the crisis in the country."

The U.S. has expressed grave concern about the erosion of democratic norms in the South American country.

The protests were triggered by a government move to nullify the opposition-controlled congress in late March, but have morphed into a general airing of grievances against the unpopular socialist administration.

As demonstrations take over Caracas almost daily, normal life has continued, but the atmosphere is suffused with tension and uncertainty. At fancy cafes, patrons show each other the latest videos of student protesters getting hurt or defaced statues of the late President Hugo Chavez on their phones. Working class people who have to traverse the capital for their jobs have adjusted their schedules to account for traffic shutdowns and take siestas to wait out clashes between protesters and police.

On Monday, protesters stayed on the main roads for six hours, then began to disperse under a heavy rain in late afternoon. Others vowed to stay rain or shine for the full 12 hours of the sit-in.

In Caracas, demonstrators assembled a giant rosary with balloons hanging from a highway overpass. A group of flamenco dancers dressed in black performed for the crowds. Others simply sat and held signs declaring their resistance.

Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said the opposition would take its protests "to another stage" as Maduro continues his push to convoke a special assembly tasked with rewriting the nation's constitution.

"We are against this fraudulent process," Capriles said on his radio broadcast.

Outside the capital, there were reports of clashes between protesters and national guardsmen in Colon, in western Venezuelan near the border with Colombia. Several people were reported injured and witness videos showed demonstrators setting an armored vehicle on fire. Authorities were also investigating a shooting in Carabobo that left two officers injured, one critically.

State security launched tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in at least three other cities. In the state of Lara west of Caracas, investigators were dispatched after three people were run over by a vehicle at a protest.

Foro Penal, a Venezuelan nonprofit group whose lawyers are representing many of those detained, said there were 35 arrests Monday.

More than three dozen people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests that erupted after the government-stacked Supreme Court issued a ruling March 29 nullifying the opposition-controlled National Assembly, a decision it later reversed amid a storm of international criticism and outrage among Venezuelans.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to castigate Maduro's administration, which they claim has become a dictatorship responsible for triple-digit inflation, skyrocketing crime and crippling food shortages.

Drawing rail-thin teenagers, elderly grandmothers and all ages in between, Venezuela's protests have taken on an almost ritual-like progression: Demonstrators begin marching toward their chosen destination and are blocked by police or national guardsmen in armored trucks launching plumes of tear gas.

The government's response to the demonstrations has drawn international condemnation, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing concern in April that Maduro is "not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard."

Maduro blames the opposition for the violence, claiming its leaders are instigating the unrest and working with gangs to remove him from power. At least two law enforcement officers have been killed in the demonstrations.

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