By Esteban Israel
CATIA LA MAR, Venezuela (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelans have escaped to the beach for the long Carnival weekend, heeding President Nicolas Maduro's call to leave behind nearly a month of anti-government protests.
But rather than leaving the inflamed partisan politics at home, many have brought it with them.
The small beach of La Morena, about 25 miles northeast of the capital Caracas, is packed.
While some take refreshing dips in the turquoise Caribbean waters, others relax with a beer. The smell of fried fish wafts in the air, and children roll in the sand.
But not even the reggaeton pop music blasting at full volume drowns out the discussions about inflation, violent crime, and the political differences that divide Venezuelans and have fed the unrest.
"We're never going to stop talking about this," said Carlos Rivero, a 32-year-old security guard with a shaved head and tattooed arms who was visiting from Caracas with his wife.
"Wherever you go, whether it's good or bad, people are always talking about politics."
Hoping to ease tensions after at least 17 people were killed in the country's worst unrest for a decade, Maduro extended the long Carnival weekend by declaring Thursday and Friday holidays too.
Since then, government officials have flooded social media with images of busy shores and happy holidaymakers, and state television has repeatedly reminded Venezuelans not to forget the traditional family break at the seaside.
"Nobody will be able to take Carnival away from us," said Tourism Minister Andres Izarra. "There's no fascist force that can stop the people from enjoying the happiness."
To help them on their way, new Chinese-made buses wait outside Metro stations to ferry Caracas residents to Catia la Mar and the beaches north of the city such as La Morena.
But even with their toes in the sand, Venezuelans remain divided. About half defend tooth-and-nail what they see as the poverty alleviation enjoyed under the self-styled revolution of the late Hugo Chavez, who died from cancer a year ago this week.
Others say they are sick of shortages of basic products such as milk and toilet paper, with the horrific levels of violent crime, and with annual inflation of 56 percent. And they say things have only got worse since Maduro took office.
In some municipalities with opposition mayors, official carnival activities were canceled.
"People come to the beach to de-stress a bit after all that tension we have in the capital," said Jose Luis Vazquez, a supermarket worker from Guarenas town to the east of Caracas, as he sat and drank a beer with his wife, watching the waves.
The problems tended to start, others said, when the sun set and it was time to pack up and pay the bill. "That's when things turn to politics," said Rivero, the security guard.
"Prices have gone up since the last time, and there's always someone who says that things weren't like this before."
Some of those who resisted temptation and stayed in Caracas responded to the government's Carnival campaign with irony. One group of opposition supporters set up a temporary 'beach' in Plaza Altamira, a square in an affluent eastern part of the city that has been the focus of their protests.
"There's no better beach than this," read a placard waved at pedestrians and drivers by one female demonstrator in a bikini.
(Additional reporting by Efrain Otero; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Phil Berlowitz)