Venezuela braced for new marches Saturday against President Nicolas Maduro, after the death toll climbed to 20 in three weeks of violence, the result of a crisis sparked by demands for the leftist leader’s ouster.
The last protests, on Thursday, descended into a night of riots and looting that left 12 people dead in Caracas.
The opposition called for protesters to dress in white and march in silence on Saturday to the Catholic Church’s episcopal seats nationwide in a show of condemnation of Maduro’s government.
It will be a test of the authorities’ tolerance for peaceful protests, after days of running battles pitting riot police and pro-government vigilantes against protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.
After Saturday’s show of silent defiance, the center-right opposition plans to return to a more confrontational strategy on Monday, when it is calling for Venezuelans to block roads in a bid to grind the country to a halt.
The government accuses the opposition of hiring armed agitators to sow violence, while the opposition says the government is repressing protesters and hiring thugs.
Vice President Tareck El Aissami accused the opposition of sponsoring a “spiral of terrorism” to trigger a coup.
Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles fired back that the government’s “savage repression” was causing the violence.
Protesters blame Maduro for an economic crisis marked by severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods.
Maduro says the protests against him are part of a US-backed coup plot.
Pressure on the socialist president has been mounting since 2014, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have sent the once-booming economy into a tailspin.
The crisis escalated on March 30, when the Supreme Court moved to seize the powers of the legislature, the only lever of state authority not controlled by Maduro and his allies.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry. But tension only increased when the authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles on April 7.
The opposition is demanding elections to exit the crisis.
As tensions mount, the government is using its almost-complete control of Venezuela’s institutions to pursue its opponents. On Wednesday alone, 565 protesters were arrested nationwide, according to Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal assistance to detainees. It said 334 remained in jail Thursday.