Pots or fireworks? The symbols of Venezuela's political divide

| Apr. 17, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Reuters

Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta

Split down the middle over an acrimonious election, Venezuelans are squaring off en masse every night at 8 p.m. on the dot in a cacophony of noise from rival factions.

Supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles bang pots and pans in a traditional form of protest used in some Latin American nations in times of political crisis.

"Let's show our anger with pots, not with our Venezuelan brothers," said Capriles, urging followers to stay peaceful as they demand a recount of a vote that gave a narrow win to Nicolas Maduro, protégé of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

On the other side, government supporters launch fireworks into the night sky to try and drown out the "cacerolazo," as the opposition protest is known for the Spanish word for stew pot.

At the designated time, Maduro backers also play recordings of Chavez singing nationalistic anthems at full volume, and songs by the revolutionary folk singer Ali Primera.

"Music, lots of music, and fireworks into the sky at 8 p.m.," Maduro said in a speech. "If they are calling for a 'cacerolazo' of hate and intolerance, then we call for a great Bolivarian fireworks party."

Maduro, who like his mentor Chavez takes inspiration from Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar, says opposition leaders are planning a coup against him.

Election authorities gave him a slim victory with 50.8 percent of votes in Sunday's ballot, against Capriles' 49.0 percent. Maduro is to be sworn in on Friday.

The nightly noise, which rocks Caracas and other cities for half an hour or more, symbolizes the bitter division of the nation of 29 million that became deeply polarized under Chavez.

As well as banging pots or launching fireworks, residents also scream insults into the night from apartment windows, and honk car horns in the street.

"Maduro, you're illegitimate! You're a thief!" residents shouted from the balconies of an apartment building in Caracas' upscale Sebucan district on Tuesday night. Children appeared alongside the grownups in some balconies and windows to bang pots and pans.

The raucous, competing demonstrations recall the most turbulent times of Venezuela's recent history, including the months before a 2002 putsch against Chavez when the city shook with noise every time he took to the airwaves.

Chavez died last month of cancer, and had named Maduro as his preferred heir.

Government supporters sneered at the opposition protests as a feeble showing by Venezuela's wealthy elite.

"They're simply damaging their expensive pots, that's all!" said Gloria Torres, 51, a community activist in Caracas' largest slum, Petare.

"This is a war of the classes, those who support the loser are mainly rich folk out in their new cars, while the real people are out supporting Maduro," said Eduardo Bravo, 23, a government supporter in eastern Anzoategui.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta, Editing by Daniel Wallis and Doina Chiacu)