- Demonstrations pop up in locations scattered around country
- Government serves free alcohol at its counter-demonstrations
Nationwide protests staged by Venezuela’s political opposition to demand a recall referendum on President Nicolas Maduro played out on a smaller scale in provincial cities across the country on Wednesday, with no single gathering point or principal march.
The opposition alliance -- known as MUD -- called for demonstrations outside each regional office of the national electoral council, or CNE, in the provincial capitals and a 10-minute protest in Caracas. Venezuela’s government responded by closing the CNE offices for the day and held its own rallies.
In Los Teques, the capital of Miranda state, about 19 miles outside Caracas, the protesters numbered only in the hundreds. Joining the opposition rally near the electoral office, they were prevented by police and pro-government supporters from getting too close. Demonstrators chanted and sang the national anthem before dispersing peacefully.
The crowds were a fraction of those at a rally in Caracas a week ago, where the opposition said over a million people had gathered, but Johan Avila, a 24-year-old physical therapist at the demonstration in Los Teques, shrugged off the small turnout.
“Change comes little by little” he said. “Even if there are only two people present, we have to stay in the streets, keeping up the pressure until Maduro leaves.”
Opposition leaders have been seeking to increase pressure on the government and push for a recall referendum on Maduro before the end of the year. Racked by triple-digit inflation and empty store shelves, Venezuelans gave the opposition control of Congress in elections last year but quickly found their majority narrowed and initiatives blocked by the courts.
In a statement Wednesday, MUD demanded electoral authorities complete the next stage -- the collection of signatures of 20 percent of the electorate to activate the referendum -- by Sept. 19 to ensure that a recall vote is held before January. Still, Maduro has so far brushed off any chance of a vote before year’s end. He’s also accused the opposition of trying to foment a coup and promised to defend the “socialist revolution” started by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
In Caracas, 150 to 200 people gathered around a stage in Plaza Brion in the central Chacaito area for the 10-minute protest at noon. At a nearby plaza in the La Castellana business district, several dozen office workers held signs and cheered as cars passing by honked.
“We are fed up with what’s happening,” Maria Guevara, a 52-year-old accountant, said at Plaza Brion. “There’s a line for everything -- for buying food, for buying medicine. We have to recall this government and pressure it any way we can.”
Venezuela’s government held rallies at several points in Caracas, and state television broadcast scenes of supporters singing and dancing.
In central downtown, workers of state telecommunications company CANTV danced salsa and chanted “Long live our President Maduro” at a rally on Libertador Avenue. Free rum, sangria and beer was given out from a truck parked in the middle of the rally.
Three separate people at the government march declined to comment when asked about their motivations for being at the march, stating that they were public workers and not authorized to speak to the media.