CARACAS, Venezuela — Amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Caracas, the U.S.-backed opposition here sought Wednesday to fill the streets with protesters and spark the beginning of a sustained uprising aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro from office.
Overnight, the smaller-scale protests that began on Monday started to spread, with a throng of demonstrators in Bolivar state setting alight a statue of Hugo Chávez, the leftist firebrand who established Venezuela’s socialist state and anointed Maduro as his successor before dying of cancer in 2013.
By early Wednesday, at least one protester was reported dead.
The actions against Maduro took place as U.S. officials sought to undermine him. In a video, Vice President Pence on Tuesday called Maduro a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power” and backed the opposition protests as “a call for freedom.” Coming on the heels of a series of U.S. sanctions, the move prompted Maduro late Tuesday to order a “revision” of diplomatic ties with the United States.
The freshly re-energized Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, faced a vital test on Wednesday in its effort to unseat Maduro, who was sworn in this month for a new six-year term after elections that were internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab.
Washington has already thrown its support behind the new leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, a 35-year-old industrial engineer who heads the country’s National Assembly.
Stripped of its power by Maduro in 2017, the assembly is nevertheless widely recognized internationally as the only democratic institution left in the country. Now, Guaidó is seeking to unite an opposition long plagued by mismanagement and infighting and ignite the largest wave of protests here since 2017, when hundreds of thousands took the streets. That movement was ultimately crushed after official repression led to the deaths of more than 100 people.
Turnout will probably influence the momentum of the opposition and gauge whether it has been truly reborn with new leadership and growing international support.
“Today we will have the chance to reunite as one in all of Venezuela,” Guaidó tweeted Wednesday. “The eyes of the world will be on our homeland today.”
Backed by Russia, China and Cuba, Maduro has ordered the arrest, torture and exile of scores of opposition politicians. One day after Maduro’s swearing-in, however, Guaidó openly challenged his rule, saying he would be willing to become interim president if he won the support of the military, foreign powers and the people.
Since then, thousands of desperate Venezuelans confronting record levels of hyperinflation and fast-spreading hunger and disease have been showing up in cities across the nation to hear Guaidó’s speeches.
“Only if the protests are massive and cross-class could they demoralize and give pause to people in the military and within the ruling party,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert and sociology professor at Tulane University.
The military’s loyalty remains key to Maduro’s survival. A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post this month that Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, has privately told Maduro that he should step aside. And thousands of police and military rank and file have deserted their posts. But outward signs of division within the military have been limited.
Nevertheless, there are growing indications of cracks. On Monday, dozens of Venezuelan National Guard personnel stole arms from two Caracas units, kidnapped four officials, and recorded themselves in a northern slum urging people to join them in rebellion. The videos circulated on social media, but shortly afterward, the government announced the arrests of 27 dissenting officials.
That same day, hundreds of residents took to the streets as protests broke out in western slums across Caracas in the afternoon, continuing well past midnight.
On Tuesday night, spontaneous protests also erupted in more than 60 neighborhoods across the capital and in interior states. Many of the demonstrations were repressed by security forces with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets.
In the state of Bolivar, protesters burned the statue of late leader Chavez, and footage of the incident went viral on social media. In a western Caracas slum, one 16-year-old was reported dead after being shot at a demonstration, according to exiled lawmaker and doctor José Manuel Olivares, who said he received the information from the hospital that treated the boy. At least 30 people have been detained in protests since Monday, according to Foro Penal, nonprofit legal firm that tracks and defends political prisoners.
The demonstrations led some observers to suggest that the poorest sectors of the capital could join the opposition’s traditional upper-class base in Wednesday’s protests — something that has rarely happened in the past.
“I’m tired,” said Gladys Ibarra, a 40-year-old informal merchant who was protesting in a northwestern Caracas slum. “I’m tired of not having water, energy. Tired of waking up at dawn trying to find gas to cook.”
The turnout is also likely to be closely watched in the United States and other nations that have been pressing for Maduro’s ouster. Colombia, Brazil and Chile have already joined the United States in offering support for Guaidó and refusing to recognize Maduro.
Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, has gone as far as recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim president” — a title that not even Guaidó himself has yet claimed. On Tuesday, the National Assembly named a “special representative” to the OAS. If the organization accepts the new appointment, it could further undermine Maduro’s ability to represent Venezuela internationally.
The heightened diplomatic war of words between Caracas and Washington was capped Tuesday by Pence’s sharply worded video, which included passages in Spanish. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Pence additionally lashed out at Maduro and vowed that “the U.S. will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles.”
“Mr. Maduro has exacerbated the country’s corruption and socialist policies, accelerating its descent from one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere to one of the poorest and most despotic,” Pence said.
Maduro responded late Tuesday, saying: “Never before has an official of such high rank gone out in the name of his government to say the Venezuelan opposition should overthrow the government.”
Maduro threatened diplomatic action against the United States “within hours.” As of early Wednesday, however, Venezuela had yet to announce concrete steps. The government did announce a counterdemonstration — a march for the fatherland — in which Maduro was scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. local time.
The two nations already maintain limited diplomatic relations. Although they both have operating embassies in each other’s capitals, they have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Venezuela’s lifeblood is oil, and the United States remains its largest cash buyer. But Venezuela’s oil production has collapsed under Maduro. Currently, Venezuela sells around 500,000 barrels per day to the United States, or about half the volume of a decade ago.
Still, experts say it would be risky for Maduro’s government to wholly sever diplomatic relations. Such a move could give the Trump administration the trigger it has been looking for to take harsher steps, including freezing Venezuelan government accounts and instituting an oil embargo that would completely cut off the U.S. market.
A clean cut in diplomatic relations could also put at risk the Maduro administration’s control of Citgo, the U.S.-based oil firm owned by the Venezuelan government.
Yet taking such a radical step could also help Maduro mobilize Venezuelans against a common enemy to the north.
As Venezuelans weighed whether to join the protests, many feared that the pro-government security forces would deploy the same kind of violence now as they did in 2017. For many, that was too high a cost, especially after the opposition became ineffectual in the months that followed.
Yet Guaidó, who was briefly detained by the intelligence police on Jan. 14, has brought a new sense of hope to that disillusioned support base. Felix Seijas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said the outcome on Wednesday would show whether the opposition was able to “generate enough pressure” to escalate its bid to unseat Maduro.
Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro. Krygier reported from Miami.
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