A woman bangs on a pot in front of Bolivarian National Guardmen blocking a road to prevent demonstrators from arriving at the Food Ministry, in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, March 8, 2014 (Photo: AP)
Armed with cooking pots in a potent symbol of Venezuela's chronic food shortages, several thousand people took to the streets of Caracas Saturday in the latest rally against President Nicolas Maduro.
The protests, which fell on International Women's Day, consisted mostly of women who noisily clanged their cookware to show discontent at scarce basic goods and a violent crime crisis they say has embittered daily life.
"There is nothing, nothing, nothing!" read a placard carried by one protester fed up with stores that regularly run out of provisions as simple and crucial as toilet paper -- despite the nation's vast oil wealth.
The rally was called by the country's most prominent opposition leader, two-time presidential election runner-up Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro by a whisker in the April 2013 election.
"We are marching over shortages that this government has left us with," Capriles told AFP as he accompanied his supporters for about 500 meters along the heavily-guarded route.
"They are turning their backs on the problems."
For more than a month, demonstrators have complained about chronic shortages of food staples such as bread, sugar, milk and butter.
Venezuelans are also seething over the country's runaway crime and murder rate, high inflation of 56 percent and the arrests of protesters.
"I can't find milk, butter, diapers, flour, sugar or rice," said Alexandra Fernandez, a 39-year-old Caracas housewife. "I can't go out in the street because it's just not safe."
The rally was bound for the Food Ministry but protesters were prevented from making it that far by the presence of armed men on motorcycles, whom the opposition accuse of being pro-government paramilitaries.
Protests were also held in several other cities including Maracaibo, San Cristobal, Valencia, Puerto Ordaz and Porlamar. Local television did not broadcast any images of the marches.
At least 20 people have died and 300 others wounded since protests first erupted, giving Maduro his biggest test since succeeding late leader and leftist icon Hugo Chavez almost a year ago.
Hours before the latest march, Capriles charged on Twitter that Maduro wanted to obstruct the demonstration.
"Our people have the right to protest and we will do it in peace," he said.
The embattled president later initiated an invitation for opposition and student leaders to sit down with him for talks Wednesday. But so far, they have spurned him twice on previous offers of dialogue.
"Once again, I invite student and opposition leaders... to meet with the president. We can talk face to face," Maduro said in remarks carried on state television.
"I'll be waiting at Miraflores (presidential palace). So who is afraid of dialogue?"
Venezuela's protest movement has been marked by regular clashes between security forces and radical protesters. There are also dozens of claims of police abuse.
The unrest began early last month as a student movement but has since been joined by Capriles and other opposition figures.
The opposition, however, has also been divided within.
The former mayor of Caracas's Chacao district, Leopoldo Lopez, spearheaded a strategy called "the way out" to push for Maduro's resignation.
Lopez gave himself up to police in dramatic fashion on February 18 in front of thousands of supporters after the authorities accused him of inciting violence.
Capriles, meanwhile, has distanced himself from "the way out" movement, warning that "conditions are not there to pressure for the government's exit."
The former candidate, who officially lost to Maduro by 1.5 percentage points, has said that in order to succeed, the protests need the support of the poorer neighborhoods that, for the most part, have staunchly supported first Chavez and now Maduro.
Analysts say that while Maduro is facing the biggest challenge of his young presidency, his government will likely prove sturdy enough to withstand the pressure.