Venezuelans Rally in Caracas to Keep Pressure on MaduroBy
Demonstration, the third in a week, seeks democratic voice
Opposition alliance calls for further protests this Saturday
Albina Molina, a 75-year-old secretary clad in the opposition’s white clothes, walked toward the main Caracas highway, a droplet heading for a river of dissent flowing across the capital.
“This is not the Venezuela I was born in," Molina said Thursday. “Here, there was abundance; now there is only authoritarianism, where the government can attack anyone who doesn’t agree with it.”
For the third time in a week, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro attempted to march across the capital in protest of what they say is a power grab by the ruling socialists. In the largest demonstration in months, thousands clogged the city’s main road, wearing tricolor caps of red, yellow and blue and waving Venezuelan flags.
Opposition leaders have been incensed since the country’s top court last month abruptly tried to quash the nation’s congress, the only elected body that openly challenged Maduro’s rule. The decision was partly reversed following criticism that the country was tumbling into authoritarianism. And while international pressure has eased, Venezuela’s opposition alliance has become emboldened, pushing to purge the courts of Maduro loyalists, to free political prisoners and to win new elections.
“We’re not in a democracy, and the only way you can make a dictatorship respect the constitution is by making it,” National Assembly Vice President Freddy Guevara told the crowd Thursday, speaking from a jury-rigged sound system on a flat-bed truck.
Speaking in a webcast news conference later Thursday evening, Guevara praised the turnout and called on opposition supporters to rally again Saturday. He said several protesters had been injured by gunshots in central Anzoategui state, while Ramon Muchacaho, the opposition mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas, said in a post on Twitter that at least 18 people were injured there.
“We ask the entire country to watch closely for what will be announced in coming days,” Guevara said.
Speaking in the same webcast, opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said he would not hide from any detention order, referring to rumors that authorities were seeking to detain him.
The opposition is trying to build momentum after its attempt to oust Maduro with a recall referendum fizzled last year. The demonstrations -- while at times violent -- have so far remained sporadic and small, a far cry from when hundreds of thousands flooded the capital’s streets in recent years.
Thursday’s crowd in the relatively prosperous Chacao district, a longtime opposition stronghold, was larger, older and calmer than many in recent days. Protesters shielded themselves from the Caribbean sun with signs and umbrellas, before turning and marching along the highway toward downtown.
As in previous attempts to demonstrate in central Caracas, units of national guardsmen blocked the march’s path with armored vehicles.
“We always try but we never quite make it, because the repression is brutal,” said Elias Bracho, a 20-year-old engineering student.
While dozens tossed stones at security forces, the mass of Thursday’s protesters held back. Street vendors sold water and ice cream as volleys of tear gas were fired near the front of the crowd.
The nation’s political factions have been at loggerheads since Maduro’s opponents took control of the legislature last year, riding a wave of anger over spiraling inflation and shortages of everything from aspirin, chicken to car parts. The opposition declared a new day, the beginning of the end of nearly two decades of socialist rule, but was stymied by the courts. Congress saw its powers curbed and almost every piece of its legislation was overturned.
The Organization of American States adopted a resolution on Monday calling upon Venezuela to ensure a “full restoration of democratic order.”
‘We’re Not Alone’
Bracho, like many in crowd, said a floundering movement had been rekindled by the international condemnation. “People had lost hope, but now it seems we’re not alone,” he said.
Beyond their political foes, opposition organizers face, perhaps, a more immediate challenge in keeping their supporters on the streets: Holy Week, where Venezuelans typically abandon the cities opting to spend their holiday on country’s Caribbean shores or Andean mountains.
Karen Carlos, a 27-year-old nurse, sat near the highway draped in a Venezuelan flag. She said she came out because she felt exasperated by her country’s downward spiral.
“We’re all tired and we all come out to protest," Carlos said. “We get scared or we conform, but one way or another, everyone just ends up going home.”
Members of the Maduro government profess to be largely unperturbed by the international outcry and the protests.
“Most soldiers in the armed forces are very clear," Diosdado Cabello, second in command of the ruling socialist party, told government supporters in downtown Caracas on Thursday. “Not even bloodshed will change Venezuela.”
— With assistance by Fabiola Zerpa, and Noris Soto