Thousands protest against Caracas government

Thousands of flag-waving protesters took to the streets in Venezuela Tuesday to keep the pressure on the government on the eve of the anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez.

Led by students, marchers dressed in white proceeded peacefully and without incident as they streamed through middle class neighborhoods of Caracas toward Petare, a sprawling slum and Chavista stronghold on the capital's eastern entrance.

Protesters chanted "We love you Venezuela" and "Freedom!" as they walked, carrying signs and flags in the red, yellow and blue national colors.

They hoisted banners protesting government censorship and repression. "There is enough teargas to make Venezuela cry," read one.

At least 18 people have died and more than 260 were injured since the protests erupted February 4 in the western border city of San Cristobal, igniting the biggest challenge yet to the nearly year-old government of Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro.

The opposition has been intent on keeping up the momentum of month-old protests against the Maduro government, which is trying just as hard to defuse the protest movement.

The government has encouraged Venezuelans to take full advantage of the annual Carnival holidays, which end Tuesday.

On Wednesday, it is staging a military and civilian parade to mark one year since Chavez's death of cancer, after 14 years in office.

Rampant crime, soaring inflation, shortages and worsening living conditions have fueled anger with the government, particularly among the hard hit middle class.

Analysts say the protests centered on the middle class do not as yet pose a threat to the Maduro government, which relies on a well of support among the poor for Chavez.

But Mariana Fonseca, a 39-year-old graphic designer in a baseball cap the colors of the Venezuelan flag, said the protesters were marching toward Petare because the poor also are affected by street crime.

"The people in the barrios are also with the cause," she said.

"I am protesting for many reasons. One is the violence in the streets, the robberies and the kidnappings. But also because of the shortages of the things like flour, oil and toilet paper," she said.

Maria Eugenia Molina, a 70-year-old who carried a sign with a dove of peace and an image of the Virgin Mary, described herself as a "prisoner of the government."

"I am a prisoner of the lack of security. I have to stand in long lines to get food. My pension is not enough to make ends meet," she said.

Opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado led another group of protesters on a march in eastern Caracas, alongside the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

As they passed by the La Carlota airbase, they hung large photographs of the dead on a perimeter fence.