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Opposition draws biggest rally yet in Venezuela
Protests » Oil-rich nation suffering under 56% inflation and rampant crime.


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Even if the protests fizzle out, the underlying frustrations that sparked them show no sign of easing: high crime, food shortages and inflation that erodes living standards in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves.

"This is a rich country and we can’t even buy a kilo of flour, a rich country but we live in misery," Marta Rivas, a 39-year-old mother of two, said as she joined the San Cristobal march.

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The current political turmoil in Venezuela was sparked on Feb. 12 by huge opposition marches that left three people dead— two opposition members and a government supporter.

Authorities blamed opposition leader Lopez for fomenting the violence and jailed him on charges including arson and incitement, prompting anger from his supporters at home and criticism from abroad.

The opposition accuses the National Guard and armed militia groups of attacking protesters and firing indiscriminately into crowds, as well as beating up and menacing some of the hundreds of activists who’ve been jailed nationwide.

Maduro said for the first time Friday that he’s investigating whether security forces opened fire at the Feb. 12 protests. He said that as a former member of Venezuela’s leftist underground, whose members were hunted down and tortured by state agents during the 1970s, his government will show zero tolerance for human rights abuses.

But he spent most of a nearly three-hour press conference Friday denouncing what he called a "campaign of demonization to isolate the Bolivarian revolution" by foreign media.

Maduro also bristled at criticism from abroad, including a statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who faulted Venezuela’s government for confronting protesters with force, imprisoning students, limiting freedoms of expression and revoking the credentials of reporters from CNN’s Spanish-language affiliate.

"This is not how democracies behave," Kerry said, urging all sides to refrain from violence.

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Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Jorge Rueda and Andrew Rosati contributed to this report from Caracas. Vivian Sequera contributed from San Cristobal.



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