Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

(Bloomberg) -- Caracas faced another tense day after massive protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, with barricades of trash and debris in the streets, shuttered businesses and sporadic blossoms of tear gas.

Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

Demonstrators take a fallen tree from a truck to use it as a barricade during a protest in Caracas on April 20.

Photographer: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

A coalition of opposition parties called for continued demonstrations Thursday like those the previous day in the capital and major cities. Hundreds of thousands turned out to rally against Maduro’s grip on the country’s institutions, and his policies that have left the economy in tatters. Clashes between protesters, security forces and pro-government gangs left three dead, bringing the toll to seven since demonstrations began three weeks ago.

On Thursday, smaller crowds of protesters piled garbage, branches and other refuse to block motorcycles ridden by national guardsmen and militant government supporters. Many residents stayed home from work in anticipation of further clashes. While crowds persisted, they were more dispersed and some wondered what would come next for the movement.

“Everyone is asking what the plan is,” said David Marval, a 23-year-old engineering student as he marched across eastern Caracas for a second day. “For me, you have to paralyze the entire city.”

Maduro remained silent a day after calling the protests a right-wing coup attempt and threatening opponents with prosecution even as he also held out the possibility of negotiations.

Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

Observers saw a long siege ahead. “People understand better that resistance will take time,” Oswaldo Ramirez, director of the Caracas-based ORC consultancy. “Political change will not be immediate.”

Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

Shattered glass is seen after looters caused damage following demonstrations in Caracas on April 20.

Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

More than 300 people were arrested across the country during Wednesday’s protests, according to the nation’s public prosecutor. Two foreign channels disappeared from the airwaves after transmitting images of demonstrators skirmishing with police.

The current unrest rivals the 2014 wave of anti-government protests that withered in the face of a government crackdown that left more than 40 dead and dozens of opposition leaders, party members and students behind bars.

Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

Triple-digit inflation and the economy’s steep contraction have left Maduro’s support hovering around 20 percent and the government far weaker than it was three years ago, according to Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.

Caracas on Knife-Edge as Maduro Protesters Erect Barricades

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, center, demonstrates against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on April 20.

Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

“The opposition, even with fewer people than yesterday, can still exert serious pressure on the government,” he said.

Maduro maintains that this month’s demonstrations are tantamount to a coup d’etat. Vice President Tareck El Aissami blamed the opposition for Wednesday’s violence and called for a probe of the organizers. “This right wing, made up of terrorist leaders, has led their people to fascist violence,” he said.

Eurasia Group said that protests were not yet at a tipping point, but showed worrying signs for Maduro. “A more unified opposition, high social discontent, mounting international pressure, and fissures within chavismo suggest that Venezuelan politics are entering a more fluid phase and that Maduro’s grip on power is weakening,” analysts Risa Grais-Targow and Agata Ciesielska wrote in emailed note.

Late Thursday, Freddy Guevara, vice president of the National Assembly, called on Venezuelans to protest from their neighborhoods on Friday, march on Saturday and rally on the country’s main roads on Monday. Maduro, speaking on state television, claimed the opposition had communicated to him that they would sit down for another round of talks.

For now, at least, the opposition is undeterred.

“We will not rest until constitutional order is reestablished,” Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and a main opposition leader, said Wednesday.