What lies behind the protests in Venezuela?

National guards inspect the national electoral headquarters in Maracaibo after a fire which, according to government officials, was set by anti-government protesters on 25 March, 2014

A wave of anti-government demonstrations - the largest in a decade - has been sweeping through Venezuela since early February. The BBC's Irene Caselli in Caracas takes a closer look at the recent unrest.

What triggered the protests?
A young protester mans a barricade before dawn on 9 March, 2014 in San Cristobal The protests first started in the western city of San Cristobal, where students demonstrated against crime

The protests began in early February in the western states of Tachira and Merida when students demanded increased security after a female student alleged she had been the victim of an attempted rape. Venezuela has the fifth highest murder rate in the world, and crime is rife in many urban centres.

The students also complained about record inflation (official figures suggest yearly inflation in December 2013 stood at 56.2%) and shortages of basic food items.

The protests in Tachira turned violent, triggering the arrest of several students, which in turn led to demonstrations in Caracas calling for their release.

The protests in Caracas started on 12 February and turned deadly when three people were shot by gunmen following a largely peaceful march that same day. There have been many demonstrations since then, varying in size from small gatherings to large rallies.

Venezuela protests end in violence

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Who is protesting?
Opposition supporters hold a national flag during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas on 22 March, 2014 There have been mass opposition rallies in the capital, Caracas, but protests have also been held elsewhere
Supporters of Venezuela's late president, Hugo Chavez, hold an image of him as they take part in a rally to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Mr Chavez being freed from jail in Caracas on 26 March, 2014. Government supporters have also held marches to show their backing for President Nicolas Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chavez

Students were the first to protest, but they were soon joined by hardliners from within the umbrella opposition group Table for Democratic Unity (MUD). Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor and political maverick, and Maria Corina Machado, an MP, are the main political figures in the movement.

After the detention of hundreds of protesters and accusations that the security forces used excessive force, a more moderate wing of the opposition also took to the streets.

According to many observers and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the protests are made up of a middle-class majority, with middle-class concerns.

Leopoldo Lopez: Venezuela's maverick opposition leader

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What do the protesters want?
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, greets supporters during a demonstration marking one month of his detention on 18 March, 2014 Protesters say the government is trying to silence them; they demand the release of all those detained

At first, their main demand was for increased security. But they have since broadened their demands to include the release of all those detained in previous protests, and economic changes to curb high inflation and alleviate shortages of some staples.

Many demonstrators say the government is beyond change and demand President Nicolas Maduro's resignation.

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What does the government say?
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech during a march in Caracas on 26 March, 2014 President Maduro says the protesters are trying to topple his government

The government accuses the opposition of trying to stage a coup with backing from the United States and has arrested a number of opposition leaders on charges of inciting violence.

It has drawn parallels between the protests and a brief coup that took place against Hugo Chavez in 2002. President Maduro has called the protesters "fascists".

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Who is behind the violence?
Relatives and mourners carry the coffin of Jimmy Vargas, a student who died during a protest, through a barricade during his funeral in San Cristobal on 26 February, 2014 Dozens of people have been killed in protest-related violence

Both protesters and members of the security forces have died in the violence which has marred some of the protests.

The opposition has accused pro-government motorcycle gangs, as well as the security forces, of shooting live rounds into opposition crowds.

The government says "fascists" are behind the violence, instigating riots and encouraging people to erect barricades. A number of motorcyclists have been decapitated by barbed wire strung across residential streets to hinder the security forces.

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Will the protests create change?
Protest in Caracas on 22 February 2014 The protests are the biggest since President Maduro took up office

These are not only the largest protests since Mr Maduro took office, they are also Venezuela's biggest protests in over a decade, spreading to other cities beyond Caracas.

However, so far they seem confined mainly, though not exclusively, to the middle class. The government's popularity remains high amid its working-class voters, who gave it a further boost in local elections in December.

Mr Capriles has said that as long as the protests do not spread to a wider sector of society, it is unlikely there will be any change.

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