Venezuelans marched in the country’s capital of Caracas on Thursday in one of the biggest mass protests against socialist rule in more than a decade.
The protesters demanded a recall vote to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office, their frustration fueled by widespread shortages of food, medicine and work in every region of the country. Hospitals and other institutions are falling apart, and cities are plagued by violence and crime from a lack of government presence. The economy’s inflation rate is soaring, and power blackouts are routine.
Estimates of the number of protesters gathered varied greatly. The opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition said at least 1 million people took part in the protest, while Maduro, who had attempted to stifle the protest, said the tally was only around 30,000.
Maduro denounced the protest – which the opposition dubbed the “Taking of Caracas” – calling it a front for a political coup.
“We have stopped the coup today, the violent, fascist ambush,” Maduro told supporters. The president also mocked the opposition’s turnout for being far lower than expected and joked that he and First Lady Cilia Flores would go the movies at a shopping mall near where they were gathering.
The Venezuelan president has been widely criticized by the media for his actions before and during his opposition’s rally.
Ahead of yesterday’s protest, the Washington Office on Latin America published a statement urging the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of its citizens to participate in peaceful protest, and to ensure their safety. But Maduro’s government threatened to fire state employees who supported the referendum, according to WOLA’s statement, warning that managers in key cabinet ministries would have 48 hours to find other jobs if they signed a referendum petition.
A number of prominent opposition activists and politicians were either detained, arrested, or had their homes raided in the days before the protest. Moreover, in a desperate attempt to control the media’s coverage of yesterday’s protest, government officials turned away journalists from NPR and other news agencies earlier this week.
“Rather than promoting peaceful dialogue, the government appears to have chosen to pave the way for deeper confrontation by intimidating and harassing opposition figures,” wrote WOLA Executive Director Joy Olson in his organization’s statement. “At a time when the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans want solutions, this hostility is both unjust and counterproductive.”
At least 20 of those protesters were arrested after a clash mid-afternoon, when security officials threw tear gas and fired pellets into a group of protesters. The opposition had worked days earlier to convince its supporters that the streets would be safe enough to protest.
Yesterday’s protest is widely seen as the opposition’s last ditch attempt to stop the Maduro government. People traveled from all corners of Venezuela to participate in the march, waiting for hours at a time as the police monitored the roads. Around 100 indigenous people from the Piaroa and Jiwi tribes also joined the throngs, AP reported, having traveled all the way from the Amazon to protest.
“I am tired of Maduro and his government, tired of crime, of hunger, of them telling us we have plenty to eat,” one protester, 45-year old Víctor Guilarte from a Caracas suburb, told the New York Times. “I want a referendum, and if there is no referendum, I want him to resign.”
Toward the end of the protest, the head of the opposition Democratic Unity alliance, Jesus Torrealba, outlined the next steps in its campaign to oust Maduro.
“Today is the beginning of the definitive stage of our struggle,” Torrealba told supporters.
There are plans for two more street protests, he said, one of which will take place Sept. 14 – the same week world leaders from 120 countries will gather on the Caribbean island of Margarita for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement.