Tens of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets of Caracas and other cities Wednesday, waving flags and shouting slogans describing President Nicolás Maduro as a dictator who must step down. The demonstrations were timed to coincide with the anniversary of a 1958 coup that toppled military despot Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
The protesters have drawn the support of the U.S., which has called Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.
They are led by Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old recently elected head of the National Assembly who has urged Venezuela’s military to join the opposition’s cause. The leader of the Popular Will party also has called for a transitional government that would hold free elections within 30 days.
Guaidó tweeted Wednesday morning that protests were underway in Caracas and the coastal cities of Carúpano and Maracaibo, showing that his movement had reached distant locations. He used the protest hashtag #GritemosConBrio, which means “Let’s cry out loud” and is also part of the chorus of the Venezuelan national anthem.
Saying she was speaking on behalf of the White House, Ivanka Trump tweeted out support for the movement. “
@POTUS, @VP and the whole Administration stand with the people of Venezuela as they seek freedom from the oppression of dictator Maduro,” she wrote.
In 2017, Maduro snuffed a 2017 attempt to oust him. Months of protests nationwide ended after more than 120 people were killed, mostly by security forces.
This round of protests began after Maduro took the oath of office for a second term Jan. 10. Observers said his election was illegitimate after his main opponents were barred from running.
Citizens burned trash and clashed with troops late Tuesday in some 60 working-class neighborhoods nationwide, Reuters reports. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a body that monitors violence, says that a 16-year-old was killed overnight in Caracas.
Under Maduro’s rule, Venezuela’s economy has nosedived, inflation has soared, and basic foods and medical supplies have grown scarce. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Columbia and Brazil as well as Ecuador, Peru and other Latin American countries. Most opposition leaders have been exiled, imprisoned or banned from running for office, John Otis reports for NPR.
Guaidó has breathed new life into the opposition, bringing together followers in town hall meetings called cabildos and pledging to bring about open, free elections. He has urged the military to abandon its loyalty to Maduro, offering amnesty to officers who turn against the president. On Wednesday, he repeated his call: “To all the armed forces, our call is very clear, from this parliament we shake your hands and ask you to stand with the Constitution and the people, your people,” Guaido wrote.
Much of the military has so far remained loyal to Maduro even though troops’ salaries have shrunk due to inflation and their equipment has decayed amid the years-long economic crisis, Reuters reports. Maduro has also cultivated senior officers by lavishing them with privileges, including key posts within the lucrative state oil monopoly.
Venezuela’s government said Monday it had put down a rebellion within the security forces. Officials said 27 national guardsmen were arrested after they allegedly kidnapped five officers, raided an outpost and stole weapons, NPR has reported. These mutineers were low-level officers, however, Reuters noted.
Wednesday’s protests were expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. Maduro has exhorted his supporters to turn out in rival demonstrations. “Men and women of the fatherland, be calm and mobilize the people to win peace and stability for Venezuela,” Maduro wrote. “The streets belong to the people!”
Hombres y mujeres de la Patria, calma, conciencia y máxima movilización popular, para ganar la paz y la estabilidad de Venezuela. Defendamos nuestra soberanía, condenemos el fascismo y alcemos las históricas banderas de lucha de Fabricio Ojeda. ¡Las calles son del pueblo! pic.twitter.com/Drfmnpby8F
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) January 23, 2019
Maduro has dismissed the National Assembly as “a group of little boys” masterminded by Washington imperialists and the far right, NPR has reported. Venezuela’s Supreme Court, packed with Maduro loyalists, has declared Guaidó and the congressional leadership illegitimate. Security forces also briefly detained the opposition leader last week.
Brazil, Canada and the Organization of American States have recognized Guaidó as the head of Venezuela’s government, according to Otis.
Vice President Pence extended his support to the National Assembly via a video with Spanish subtitles that he posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
“The United States supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaidó, the president of your National Assembly, to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a usurper, and call for the establishment of a transitional government,” Pence said. “On behalf of the American people, we say to all the good people of Venezuela, estamos con ustedes. We are with you.”
As the good people of Venezuela make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say: estamos con ustedes. We are with you. We stand with you, and we will stay with you until Democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of Libertad. pic.twitter.com/ThzIAqBoRn
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) January 22, 2019
Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez accused Pence Tuesday of “openly calling for a coup.”
“Yankee, go home,” she added in a statement, according to the Telesur news service, which is partly funded by the Venezuelan government.
NPR’s Isabel Lara contributed to this report.