Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas and played cat and mouse with protesters on Wednesday in order to block a march demanding a recall referendum aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro.
"We want to protest and they won't let us past even though these are public spaces," said Josefina Rubio during the third opposition rally in a week in downtown Caracas, the country's capital. "That man [President Maduro] has taken off his mask… but we will keep taking to the streets."
Venezuela's political opposition coalition has already gathered two million signatures in favor of a referendum on the future of Maduro, who is widely blamed for an acute economic crisis that includes chronic shortages of basic goods, as well as hyperinflation.
Wednesday's protesters had hoped to march on the headquarters of the electoral authorities, who they accused of dragging their feet over the complicated procedure of checking the validity of the signatures and calling the vote.
They were never going to get very far, however, with even their meeting point occupied from early morning by National Guard soldiers and police in riot gear. The authorities also closed subway stations in the capital in another measure to limit their movements.
Protesters milled instead in nearby streets waving flags and chanting anti-Maduro slogans until these gatherings were broken up by the security forces using tear gas.
"It's as if the streets belonged to Chavismo," 26-year-old Alejandro Calles said, referring to the "socialist" regime established by former President Hugo Chávez in 1999 and then inherited by his hand-picked successor Maduro. "I am tired of not being allowed to demonstrate."
Some drivers honked their support as they passed by the protest, while government loyalists shouted against the protesters from the balconies of nearby buildings.
Wednesday's demonstration included a notable number of elderly people who have been particularly impacted by the near impossibility of obtaining even basic medications within the wider crisis.
The oil-producing country's acute economic troubles were triggered by the fall of the oil price, but critics say its depth owes much to mismanagement and corruption during the previous boom years when abundant revenues financed major improvements for the poor. These, however, have now all but disappeared.
While it was dominated by the middle classes, who have always been more vocal in their opposition to Chavismo, this week's march was also attended by people from less privileged sectors whose loyalty has been severely tested by the crisis.
"I am protesting because there is no milk, because in order to eat you have to stand in line from 4am. Don't babies have a right to food?" said Óscar Goicoechea, a 43-year-old electrician who was walking with his 10-year-old daughter. "This country is screwed and I can't believe it that the soldiers don't realize that."
Another anti-Maduro demonstration held last week turned violent when troops using tear gas to quell stone-throwing protesters and an officer pepper-sprayed opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
A former presidential candidate, Capriles has emerged as one of the most vocal leaders of the protest movement and on Tuesday called on Venezuelans not to comply with a 60-day state of emergency announced by President Maduro on the weekend.
"If Maduro wants to apply this decree, he's going to have to prepare the war tanks and airplanes, and take them to the street, because he will have to apply it by force," Capriles insisted. "We are not going to accept that decree."
The emergency widens presidential powers to sidestep the National Assembly — which has been controlled by the opposition since January — in order to intervene directly in the economy and increase control of the streets.
Maduro said the emergency was necessary in order to protect the nation against US-backed plots against him by the "fascist" bourgeoisie that he has long accused of heading an "economic war" aimed at bringing down Venezuelan "socialism."
In the meantime spontaneous street riots and looting are also becoming more common around Venezuela amid worsening food shortages, frequent power and water cuts, and one of the highest inflation rates in the world. Videos of mobs breaking into shops, swarming onto trucks or fighting over products often make the rounds on social media.
But for all the extreme tension, organized protests called by the opposition, like the one on Wednesday, have yet to attract enough people to represent a real threat to government control.
Locals say this is partly because so much of the population is spending large amounts of time and energy in lines to obtain basic goods. There is also considerable distrust of the opposition leadership that is widely considered to represent a privileged elite, and Maduro can still count on the loyalty of a significant sector of the population who adored Chávez.
Socialist Party officials certainly appear relatively confident that they will be able to block efforts to force the referendum for this year, and so avoid the possibility that it could force a general election. Even if there is a referendum next year and Maduro is removed, he would be replaced by his current vice president Aristóbulo Istúriz.
Follow Victor Amaya on Twitter: @victoramaya