CARACAS – Venezuela’s increasingly militant opposition stepped up its push to remove leftist leader Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday with rallies that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters and calls for a general strike and march on the presidential palace.
Enraged by last week’s suspension of their push for a referendum to remove Maduro and determined to end 17 years of socialism in the South American OPEC nation, Venezuela’s opposition has sharply ramped up its tactics in recent days.
Maduro, the unpopular 53-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez who has presided over an unprecedented economic crisis, accuses the opposition of seeking a coup with US help.
“They are desperate, they have received the order from the north to destroy the Venezuelan revolution,” he told a counter-march of red-shirted government loyalists.
After launching a political trial against Maduro on Tuesday in the National Assembly, the opposition coalition held nationwide marches dubbed “Takeover of Venezuela” on Wednesday.
“This government is going to fall!” crowds chanted, many wearing white and waving national flags as they filled one of Caracas’ main highways.
Protesters clashed with security forces in several cities across Venezuela, including the volatile western town of San Cristobal that was an epicenter of violence during 2014 anti-Maduro protests. Opposition leaders said there were dozens of injured, with two protesters reportedly struck by bullets in the Western city of Maracaibo near Colombia. Both were hospitalized and expected to recover.
Coalition leaders called for a national strike for Friday, and a November 3 march to the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, unless the election board allows the referendum.
“This has gone too far. I do not like confrontation, but we have been too compromising and soft with the government,” said Grimaldi Lopez, a 50-year-old carpenter who carried a large Venezuelan flag covered in the signatures of well-known opposition leaders.
“The referendum was our constitutional right, and they have denied it. What are they scared of?,” he added at the Caracas rally, echoing accusations that Maduro leaned on compliant electoral and judicial authorities to block the plebiscite.
Despite sitting on the world’s biggest oil reserves, Venezuela is in the throes of a punishing recession that has many poor families skipping meals amid scarce food and triple-digit inflation.
Foes say Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who narrowly won election after Chavez’s death in 2013, is an incompetent autocrat who is to blame for the economic problems.
Maduro says low oil prices and a US-led “economic war” against him are responsible for the recession, and has vowed to stand firm.
“Maduro is not leaving!” several thousand supporters chanted at the government rally.
In apparent tactics to impede the opposition demonstrations, authorities set up roadblocks and closed some underground metro stations in Caracas. Reuters journalists in several cities reported big crowds at the opposition rallies, especially in the capital, collectively numbering hundreds of thousands.
Wary of trouble, many businesses stayed shut and some parents kept children away from school.
In the restive city of San Cristobal, masked protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs in clashes with security forces and attacked the local headquarters of the electoral council.
Just back from a tour of major oil-producing countries plus meetings with the Pope and UN Secretary General-designate Antonio Guterres, Maduro said his opponents were trying to reprise a brief 2002 putsch against Chavez.
“In Venezuela there will neither be a coup d’etat nor a gringo intervention,” Maduro roared to supporters.
With Venezuela’s key oil sector under government control and the economy in a tailspin anyway, the opposition’s planned strike would be unlikely to have a major financial effect on the country.
Opposition protests two years ago led to 43 deaths, including among security officials and government and opposition supporters. As a result, some Venezuelans are wary of demonstrations or see them as futile.
Venezuela’s poor have to prioritize the all-consuming task of finding affordable food, while many remain skeptical of the opposition, which has a reputation for elitism and whose internal squabbles have for years been a boon for “Chavismo.”
Maduro convened a special Committee for the Defense of the Nation at the presidential palace to analyze the National Assembly’s actions against him and a tentatively scheduled dialogue with the opposition this weekend.
National Assembly head Henry Ramos, a veteran politician who swaps insults with Maduro almost daily, declined an invitation to attend. “Here’s his chair, empty again,” said Maduro, urging participation in talks supported by the Vatican, regional bloc Unasur and various ex-heads of state.
Opposition leaders, however, said they would not attend talks until the government allowed the referendum process to continue.