CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands took to the streets here Thursday to demand the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, in what appeared to be the year's largest display of frustration with Venezuela's economic collapse and leadership.
The march, which protesters called "the taking of Caracas," was organized by political opponents of the country's ruling leftists. The marchers took over a major highway and several avenues in Caracas, the nation's capital, and poured into the city's plazas in an effort to gain momentum for a referendum to recall Maduro.
But the discontent was far greater than mere political frustration in a country that has spiraled into economic ruin. Some protesters traveled for hours from parts of Venezuela where they said they could no longer find enough food. Others said they could not find work, or that their cities were plagued by violence and suffering from a lack of government presence.
Ivonne Mejías, 42, who wore a headband of yellow, blue and red, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, said the situation had become so difficult that she had not been able to bake birthday cakes for her children this year. Her family of four gets by on just $25 a week, Mejías said, and she has taken to making pinatas to earn extra money.
"Sometimes I want to kill myself," she said. "I am frustrated, I am out of control, I am fighting with this world. This isn't my life. My soul splits in two when my kids beg for something — for an ice cream, for a cookie — and I can't give it to them. The most difficult thing is getting food."
Víctor Guilarte, 45, a mechanic from a Caracas suburb, said his work had vanished because his neighbors had became so poor they could not afford car repairs. Two weeks ago, he said, he visited his family in another state and found the situation even worse.
"I came back feeling destroyed — they had no food," he said. "I am tired of Maduro and his government, tired of crime, of hunger, of them telling us we have plenty to eat. I want a referendum, and if there is no referendum, I want him to resign."
Maduro had called on his supporters to take to the streets to stage a counterprotest, which drew crowds dressed in red, the color of former President Hugo Chavez's leftist movement.
The government instead appeared to be cracking down on opponents. Days earlier, Daniel Ceballos, an opposition leader under house arrest on charges of inciting violence, was transferred to a jail cell. The government said he had planned to agitate for violence during the protest.
The authorities were also trying to tamp down foreign news media coverage. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit group based in New York, said Wednesday that at least six journalists, including two from Al-Jazeera and one from the French newspaper Le Monde, were barred from entering the country at the airport.
Jim Wyss, a reporter for the Miami Herald, was allowed to enter, only to be forced to leave despite having a valid journalist visa, the Herald said.