CARACAS (AFP) - Armed with cooking pots in a potent symbol of Venezuela's chronic food shortages, several thousand people took to the streets of Caracas on Saturday in the latest rally against President Nicolas Maduro.
The protests, which fell on International Women's Day, consisted mostly of women who noisily clanged their cookware to show their discontent over a scarcity of basic goods and insecurity they say has become a part of daily life.
"There is nothing, nothing, nothing", read a placard carried by one protester fed up with stores that habitually run out of provisions as simple and crucial as toilet paper - despite the nation's vast oil wealth.
The rally was called by the country's most prominent opposition leader, two-time presidential election runner-up Henrique Capriles, who lost to Mr Maduro by a whisker in April 2013 elections.
"We are marching over shortages that this government has left us with," Mr Capriles told Agence France-Presse as he accompanied his supporters for about 500m along the heavily-guarded route.
"They are turning their backs on the problems."
For more than a month, demonstrators have complained about chronic shortages of food staples like bread, sugar, milk and butter.
Venezuelans are also seething over the country's runaway crime and murder rate, high inflation of 56 per cent and the arrests of protesters.
"I can't find milk, butter, diapers, flour, sugar or rice," said Ms Alexandra Fernandez, a 39-year-old Caracas housewife. "I can't go out in the street because it's just not safe."
The rally was bound for the Food Ministry but protesters were prevented from making it that far by the presence of armed men on motorcycles, whom the opposition accuse of being pro-government paramilitaries.
"Libertador is a peaceful neighbourhood and free of fascism and we will keep it that way," said Mr Jorge Rodriguez, the mayor of that part of town who has close ties to Mr Maduro.
Protests were also held in several other cities including Maracaibo, San Cristobal, Valencia, Isla de Margarita and Puerto Ordaz. Local television did not broadcast any images of the marches.
'RIGHT TO PROTEST'
At least 20 people have died and 300 others wounded since protests first erupted, giving Mr Maduro his biggest test since succeeding late leader and leftist icon Hugo Chavez almost a year ago.
Hours before the latest march, Mr Capriles charged on Twitter that Mr Maduro wanted to obstruct the demonstration.
"Our people have the right to protest and we will do it in peace," he said.
Venezuela's protest movement has been marked by regular clashes between security forces and radical protesters. There are also dozens of claims of police abuse.
Mr Capriles has accused Mr Maduro of promoting a "confrontation of people against people" after the socialist leader called on his followers to "enforce order".
"Little candle that is lit, little candle that we put out with our people," Mr Maduro said this week.
The unrest began early last month as a student movement but has since been joined by Mr Capriles and other opposition figures. But the opposition has also been divided.
The former mayor of Caracas's Chacao district, Mr Leopoldo Lopez, spearheaded a strategy called "the exit" to push for Mr Maduro's resignation.
Mr Lopez gave himself up to police in dramatic fashion on Feb 18 in front of thousands of supporters after the authorities accused him of inciting violence.
Mr Capriles, meanwhile, has distanced himself from "the exit" movement, warning that "the conditions are not there to pressure for the government's exit".
The former candidate, who officially lost to Mr Maduro by 1.5 percentage points, has said that in order to succeed, the protests need the support of the poorer neighbourhoods that, for the most part, have staunchly supported first Mr Chavez and now Mr Maduro.
Analysts say that while Mr Maduro is facing the biggest challenge of his young presidency, his government will likely prove sturdy enough to withstand the pressure.