Venezuela: What’s the crisis about?

Editor’s Note: Have you witnessed the protests in Venezuela? Share your experiences with CNN iReport, but please stay safe.

Story highlights

Murder, terror charges against opposition leader Lopez dropped; new charges brought

Nationwide student protests started this month

They attracted global attention when three people were killed

Protesters want better security, an end to goods shortages, protected freedom of speech

CNN  — 

Venezuelans have taken to the streets in recent days, leading to gruesome clashes between protesters and police. Their demands are varied, from economic to social. Here’s a Q and A to bring you up to speed with what’s going on.

When did the protests in Venezuela begin?

Nationwide student protests started this month. On February 12, the demonstrations attracted global attention when three people were killed.

Demonstrators are demanding better security, an end to goods shortages and protected freedom of speech.

Major social and economic problems have fueled the protests. But as the demonstrations gained steam, officials have pointed fingers at other factors and accused the United States of plotting to destabilize the government.

Some blame Venezuela’s government, led by President Nicolas Maduro, for those problems. Maduro and other officials blame the opposition for the security and economic problems.

The protests are the largest Maduro has faced in his 11 months in power. He has called opposition members fascists and compared them to an infection that needs to be cured.

Who’s protesting?

Many demonstrators across the country are students, but prominent opposition politicians have also joined marches.

Since February 13, more than 2,000 stories from Venezuela have been uploaded to iReport, CNN’s user-generated platform. Many of the videos and photos are gruesome, and depict violent scenes between demonstrators and police.

Who are some of the opposition figures involved?

You’ll be hearing a lot about opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in the coming days. He’s become the opposition’s face of demonstrations against the government. Lopez was detained this week on terrorism and murder charges, but prosecutors dropped those charges, replacing them with arson and conspiracy counts, his lawyer said Thursday.

What did Lopez do?

Lopez was arrested in connection with the deaths of four anti-government protesters and a government supporter in clashes nationwide. He was targeted because he organized protests.

He has denied the charges, which the human rights group Amnesty International said “smack of a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent in the country.” Human Rights Watch weighed in, too, warning that Venezuela must avoid “scapegoating” political opponents.

You mentioned something about a U.S. plot to destabilize Venezuela …

Yes. Top Venezuelan officials have accused the United States of trying to destabilize the government. This week, Venezuela gave three U.S. diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, accusing them of conspiring to bring down the government.

At a rally Tuesday, Maduro shouted, “Yankee, go home” from the stage, drawing cheers from the crowd.

U.S. President Barack Obama was not amused.

“Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people,” Obama said.

Is this the first time Venezuela has had protests?

No. Bitter protests and counterprotests by supporters and opponents of the government have threatened political stability in Venezuela over the past decade.

Many of Maduro’s claims – of U.S. intervention, of assassination plots – were also lobbed by the late President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, but otherwise outlasted the protests and repeatedly won re-election.

What happened to Hugo Chavez?

He ruled for 14 years until his death last year after a long battle with cancer. Maduro, who was then his vice president, won the presidential election and is now running the country.

What’s the latest?

Lopez remained in a military prison Thursday. His wife, Lilian Tintori de Lopez, called on supporters to keep the pressure on the government.

“Don’t give up,” she said. “I won’t.”

Tell me more about Venezuela

Venezuela is on the northern coast of South America and shares a border with Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. Its formal name is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The oil-rich nation – one of the world’s top 10 oil exporting countries worldwide – has a population of about 30 million.

READ: Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez remains behind bars

READ: Cheered by supporters, Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez surrenders

READ: Will Venezuela abandon Chavismo?