By Andreina Aponte and Girish Gupta
CARACAS (Reuters) - Covering his mouth with a rag, Latin pop star Nacho choked on tear gas at an anti-government protest last month. Mexican actress Salma Hayek praised the protesters' courage. Venezuelan soccer star Salomon Rondon called them "heroes."
A decade ago, the charismatic Hugo Chavez not only persuaded millions to vote for him in Venezuela, he enticed a who's who of Hollywood icons, pop stars and celebrity intellectuals to publicly back his "21st Century Socialism."
But now, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets for over a month to decry Venezuela's ravaged economy and falling democratic credentials as leftist President Nicolas Maduro rebuffs calls for early elections, former backers have gone quiet while a new raft of celebrities cheer on anti-government demonstrators.
From Venezuela's best known actor, Edgar Ramirez, to U.S. heavyweight Robert De Niro, messages are streaming in to support the most sustained anti-government unrest since 2014, as the country suffers a major crisis leaving millions struggling with food shortages.
Some 29 people have died and hundreds have been arrested or injured in the near-daily protests.
"How can I stay quiet when it's impossible to be indifferent in the face of so much pain and so many people paying with their lives?" said soccer player Salomon Rondon, who grew up in the low-income hillside Caracas neighbourhood of Catia and now plays in the English Premier League.
"No more repression, no more division, no more violence, no more deaths!"
Still, the growing turmoil has yet to bring any high-profile changes of heart from A-listers ranging from Danny Glover and Sean Penn to Naomi Campbell and Oliver Stone once known for their public pronouncements backing Chavez. Their media representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
And some of the biggest names were less than full-throated in their pro-opposition moves. De Niro, for example, simply appeared in an Instagram posting by Ramirez saying that the pair talked about "nearly nothing else" but Venezuela.
Still, with Venezuela ever more isolated, the influx of high-profile support is encouraging protesters.
"We're grateful for the references and solidarity ... of so many international artists for our beloved Venezuela," said two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, recently barred from office, after the Latin Billboard awards in which stars dedicated their songs to Venezuela.
"Venezuela, I know you're suffering. There are deaths and that's not okay," said award-winning singer J Balvin from neighbouring Colombia.
However, at least one homegrown star is being lambasted for not speaking out.
World-renowned Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was attacked by critics who said he was going too soft on the government.
"I want to make a call to political leaders to find the ways necessary to end this crisis," Dudamel said in a video online, his moderate tone prompting one Twitter user to compare him to Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian director of Adolf Hitler's favourite orchestra.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Corina Pons, Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Christian Plumb and Leslie Adler)