(Updates with Capriles' aide freed, paragraphs 3, 19; Tachira
governor, paragraph 10)
By Daniel Wallis and Efrain Otero
CARACAS Nov 23 Tens of thousands of opposition
supporters marched in Venezuela on Saturday to pressure
President Nicolas Maduro's government before Dec. 8 local
elections after their leader denounced the pre-dawn arrest of
one of his aides.
The vote for control of 335 municipalities will be the first
big test of Maduro's political strength after he narrowly
defeated his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, in a
presidential election in April.
Capriles told the main rally in the capital his national
tours coordinator, Alejandro Silva, was taken at gunpoint from a
Caracas hotel room by military intelligence agents. The aide
said later on Twitter that he had been released.
"Maduro, don't be a coward! ... You want to put me in
prison, come for me! I'm not afraid," Capriles said to cheers
from a crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 supporters, many wearing the
blue, yellow and red of the Venezuelan flag.
With voters frustrated over surging inflation and product
shortages, a major part of the government's strategy has been a
theatrical confrontation with business leaders that echoes the
style of Maduro's late mentor, Hugo Chavez.
The authorities have ordered businesses to slash prices and
people have flooded shops to take advantage of discounted items
ranging from car parts to electronics and sports shoes.
Maduro said a new foreign currency exchange mechanism would
be unveiled on Monday, but gave no other details.
Many people who marched with the opposition said Maduro's
statist economic policies were the problem.
"I'm not looking for home appliances," said Celide Romero, a
79-year-old protester. "I've been looking for milk for the last
month and a half, but there isn't any."
COMPETING FOR HEADLINES
In one apparently isolated report of trouble, the governor
of western Tachira state, Jose Vielma, said opposition
supporters destroyed a government post set up to register small-
and medium-seized businesses during their march there.
Competing with the opposition rallies for local media
headlines over the weekend is the latest move in what Maduro
calls an "economic offensive," with ministers leading inspection
teams to check shopping malls nationwide.
The government charges that anyone who marched with the
opposition was showing support for corrupt "speculators" who it
blames for an annual inflation rate that neared 55 percent last
month and a black market rate for dollars that has risen to some
nine times the official level of 6.3 bolivars.
"It's class warfare ... we love the homeland and happiness,
and others want to concentrate power and riches in a few hands
and exploit the people," said Vice President Jorge Arreaza.
The opposition counters that Maduro's "offensive" - which
began with the military occupation of an electronics chain -
amounts to state-led looting that punishes honest business
owners and only makes things worse.
They were angered further last week when the
"Chavista"-dominated National Assembly granted Maduro decree
powers which he has vowed to use first to cap retailers' profits
and reorganize the distribution of foreign currency.
On Friday, the president said he had ordered the arrest of
two unnamed opposition officials whom he accused of trying to
pay individuals to disguise themselves as government supporters
and attack Saturday's opposition rallies, with the goal of
blaming his administration for any bloodshed.
"They're looking for a death in order to try to light a
fuse. We won't allow it," Maduro said in a televised speech.
There was no official comment on the opposition leader's
aide, who was held for several hours, but a senior government
minister said a "fascist henchmen" of Capriles was detained.
Late in the day, Silva said on Twitter he had been released:
"I'm now free and ready to move forward," he said.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Diego Ore; Editing by
Christopher Wilson and Eric Walsh)