CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s re-invigorated opposition faced a crucial test yesterday as it sought to fill streets nationwide with protesters in an appeal to the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government.
The protests have been called to coincide with a historic date for Venezuelans – the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. Government supporters were also expected to march in downtown Caracas in a rival show of strength.
The competing demonstrations come after a whirlwind week that saw an uprising by a tiny military unit, fires set during protests in poor neighbourhoods and the brief detention by security forces of the newly installed head of the opposition-controlled congress.
For much of the past two years, following a deadly crackdown on protests in 2017 and the failure of negotiations ahead of last May’s boycotted presidential election, the coalition of opposition parties has been badly divided by strategy and ego battles as millions of desperate Venezuelans fled the country’s hyperinflation and widespread food shortages. But buoyed by unprecedented international criticism of Maduro, anti-government forces have put aside their differences and are projecting a united front.
Their leader this time, taking the reins from a long list of better-known predecessors who have been exiled, outlawed or jailed, is Juan Guaido, the new president of the National Assembly who was dragged from an SUV just over a week ago by intelligence agents but quickly released amid an international outcry.
In the run-up to yesterday’s actions, the defiant 35-year-old lawmaker has crisscrossed Caracas attending outdoor assemblies known as “Open Cabildos” – for the revolutionary citizen councils held against Spanish colonial rule – pumping up crowds by arguing that Maduro must go for democracy to be restored.
Speaking on Monday from the roof of a college building, Guaido proclaimed with fist raised: “We are tired of this disaster. We know this isn’t a fight of a single day but one that requires lots of resistance.”
An enthusiastic crowd of students answered with shouts of “Freedom!” and “Get out, Maduro!”
Driving the crisis has been Maduro’s decision to plow ahead in the face of international condemnation and take the presidential oath on January 10 for a second term widely considered illegitimate after his main opponents were banned from running against him.
Guaido has been targetting his message to Venezuela’s military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes.
Maduro, who lacks the military pedigree of his mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, has sought to shore up support from the armed forces by doling out key posts to top generals, including heading the PDVSA oil monopoly that is the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s export earnings.
He has also been playing commander in chief, appearing last week at a military command meeting wearing camouflage fatigues and receiving the blessing of the defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez.