By Alexandra Ulmer
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) - For over a decade, Venezuelan opposition supporters would clang pots and pans on balconies of middle-class apartments to protest late leader Hugo Chavez's self-styled "21st century socialism."
While sometimes deafening, the protests never seemed to get under the skin of the charismatic leftist, whose supporters often countered with fireworks from shanty towns, and many in the opposition ended up deeming them futile.
But the 'cacerolazo', as such protests are known round South America, returned with a bang a few days ago when a pot-wielding crowd ran after Chavez's unpopular successor Nicolas Maduro in a previously pro-government working class neighborhood of Margarita island.
Amazed and amused by the sight of the normally hyper-protected Maduro humiliated in public, opposition supporters are now flaunting their kitchenware nationwide to taunt the man they blame for a dire economic crisis that has many families skipping meals.
"Now it feels completely different because there's no food, there's hunger, and this thug we have as president is scared of 'cacerolazos'!" said protester Migdalia Ortega, 59, beside a handful of women banging pots along a main avenue in Maracaibo, an oil city full of shuttered stores and littered with garbage.
"We had stopped using the pots and pans in marches but now we're going to bring them every time," she added, as a few hundred protesters prepared to march under the sizzling tropical sun to demand a recall referendum against Maduro.
The former bus driver and union leader has not spoken publicly about the incident in Margarita, which sparked a frenzy of jokes and cartoons. One showed him overtaking Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt to avoid pots being thrown his way.
Government officials say the grainy videos of Maduro surrounded by jeering protesters were "manipulated" by pro-opposition media and maintain he was actually cheered by supporters after inspecting state housing projects.
Still, authorities briefly rounded up more than 30 people for heckling him. A prominent journalist is in jail - and charged with money laundering - after publicizing the protest.
Recalling protests against government members at restaurants, houses and even funeral parlors, Socialist Party lawmaker Elias Jaua said pots-and-pans protests should be considered a punishable offense if they promote "intolerance."
During Chavez's 14-year rule, their use reached a crescendo around a failed 36-hour coup attempt in 2002 and a strike that crippled the oil industry from late that year into 2003.
"The 'cacerolazo' is even more relevant today because it is a symbol of rebellion," said artist Cecilia Leonardi, 54, who said she has cut back on meat and legumes because they are unavailable or too expensive, while banging a pot in Maracaibo.
'Cacerolazos' came to the fore under Chile's late socialist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s, when middle- and upper-class women would bang on pots to protest shortages.
They transcend political lines: 'cacerolazos' have taken place this year against both Argentina's center-right president Mauricio Macri and Brazil's now-ousted leftist leader Dilma Rousseff.
In Venezuela, 'cacerolazos' have been a defining symbol of anti-socialist opponents, many of whom come from the middle and upper classes. Chavez, who died from cancer in 2013, used to mock them as a "parasitic bourgeoisie" intent on getting its hands back on the OPEC country's oil reserves.
One government-employed 'Chavista' in western Zulia state said she was becoming disillusioned with Maduro but still did not have faith in his opponents.
"The 'cacerolazos' are useless: why doesn't the opposition give us (policy) proposals instead?" she said, asking to remain anonymous because she feared for her job at a state university.
"If they put forward a coherent proposal, even I would join them. But for now I'll stick to the devil I know."
Some former government supporters, however, are now joining the pots-and-pans protests.
Suffering a third year of recession and triple-digit inflation, many poor Venezuelans say they are skipping meals and forgoing protein-rich meats and beans as they often emerge empty-handed from shops despite hours in line.
"Sometimes we only eat once a day," said Marjorie Rodriguez, an angry former Chavez supporter and mother-of-three, who described putting on a shirt and hat in the colors of the national flag earlier this week to bang pots in her poor
Ciudad Ojeda neighborhood, next to oil-rich Maracaibo Lake.
"We have to get rid of this president so that products start arriving again," said Rodriguez, stood in a hot line under the midday sun with dozens of others hoping to buy pasta.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)