CARACAS: Chanting “this government will fall!” Venezuelan opposition supporters descended on Caracas on Thursday to press for a recall referendum this year against unpopular Socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
With thousands of protesters arriving from the Amazon jungle to the western Andes, the opposition coalition was hoping for one million people at rallies across the capital to show anger at Maduro and Venezuela’s deep economic crisis.
The president’s ratings have halved to under 25 percent as falling oil prices and the failing state-led economy have left the OPEC nation in turmoil.
Triple-digit inflation, a third year of recession, shortages of basics, and long lines at shops have exasperated Venezuelans and underpinned a resounding opposition election win in a December legislative vote.
Maduro, 53, says the opposition-dubbed ‘Takeover of Caracas’ disguises a U.S.-fomented coup plan, akin to a short-lived 2002 putsch against his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
On-edge authorities arrested some well-known activists in the run-up, with 13 opposition campaigners and supporters still in custody, according to a local rights group.
Extra police and troops were positioned around Caracas, and opposition supporters said there were roadblocks on all major routes, with buses being blocked and traffic crawling.
Fearing violence, especially given 43 deaths around anti-Maduro protests in 2014, many businesses closed and parts of Caracas were deserted in the early morning.
“We have to come out and fight for a free Venezuela! We can’t take this any more,” said Elizabeth De Baron, 69, a secretary traveling 25 miles (40km) from the town of Guarenas.
Dozens of indigenous people marched hundreds of miles from their home state of Amazonas.
MADURO ON ALERT
Swearing loyalty to Chavez’s legacy and calling opposition leaders a wealthy elite intent on controlling Venezuela’s oil, red-shirted government supporters gathered for counter-rallies.
“I’m ready for everything … we will not allow a coup,” Maduro said in a speech late on Wednesday, saying various people had been arrested while planning to place explosives and kill fellow opposition supporters to discredit the government and create chaos.
Maduro narrowly won election after Chavez died from cancer in 2013, but is seen to have failed to replicate his charismatic leadership.
Despite the country’s ills, the opposition has struggled to consolidate support among ‘Chavistas’ and even its own base, disillusioned with the failure of past street action.
With a compliant Supreme Court vetoing every major measure that congress passes, the opposition wants to activate a plebiscite on Maduro as allowed in the constitution halfway through his term.
But the election board has dragged its feet on the process, making the vote unlikely this year. Should it happen in 2017 and were he to lose, Maduro’s vice president would take over, keeping the ruling Socialist Party in power, rather than there being a new presidential election.