Thousands of anti-government protesters are marching across Venezuela on Wednesday, to demand the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro. Counter-rallies are also expected in support of the leader, who was recently sworn in for a controversial second term.
The anti-government protests are a crucial test for the country’s re-invigorated opposition, and the National Assembly, which it controls.
Last week, the body declared Maduro an “usurper”, but the Supreme Court nullified the legislation, disavowing Juan Guaido as the National Assembly’s leader.
Wednesday’s protests come on the heels of demonstrations late on Tuesday in at least 60 working-class neighbourhoods around the country. Residents burned trash and clashed with security forces, echoing the violent street demonstrations that took place two years ago, a local rights group said. At least four people were killed, including a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the abdomen, according to Venezuela‘s Observatory of Social Conflict.
The opposition has been energised by Guaido and the harsh international reception of Maduro’s second term, widely condemned as illegitimate.
“The opposition has had serious internal conflicts, although in 2015, it won the National Assembly, they have not shown cohesion,” Professor Ramon Pinango, a sociologist from the Venezuelan University of IESA told Al Jazeera.
“However, very recently, as recently as the last weeks it seems they have reached an agreement, and the Assembly has regained its power,” he added. “The regime is harassed, and every time their political spectrum is getting reduced, the international pressure is strong.”
But any change in government will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.
Guaido, 35, has called for the military to disavow Maduro and promised amnesty for those that help bring about a return to democracy. He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro as interim president, with the support of the military, to call free elections.
Addressing members of the military on Monday, he said, “We’re not asking you to stage a coup d’etat, we’re not asking you to shoot. We’re asking you not to shoot at us.”
Guaido would provide legal protection to soldiers and officials who defected if he became president, he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday, although “there would have to be justice for those that have done bad things”.
Rachid Yasbek, a member of the opposition also appealed to the military.
“All military men or women has a family, all of them are also facing the conditions we are facing,” Yasbek told Al Jazeera.
“We are making a call to the higher ranks we are asking them to stand with the people,” he added.
However there are few signs that indicate the military is prepared to abandon Maduro.
“The military leadership is faithful to Maduro and will continue to be until he’s gone,” one active duty high-ranking military officer told Reuters news agency.
‘I’m tired of repression’
Maduro accuses the United States, and other countries of waging an “economic war” to force him from power.
Diosdado Cabello, the head of the constitutional assembly, accused Venezuela’s opposition of being on a mission to “threaten and cause terror”.
He said anyone who acts out of line at Wednesday’s protests will be met with justice.
Government supporters also accuse the opposition of trying to bring conflict to the country.
“The opposition is trying to raise the level of conflict, so that the government falls into the trap, and uses police forces, then the international community could have an excuse to execute an intervention,” Juan Romero, an analyst and government supporter told Al Jazeera.
But opposition supporters say they are tired of the current situation.
“I’m tired of repression. I want to see my country in better conditions,” said 22-year-old Javier Pineda, a physiotherapy therapy student, in Caracas.
“In the hospitals there is nothing, there are no supplies for treatments that are simple, there are no stretchers. We attend people on the floor,” he told Al Jazeera. “Today I protest with nostalgia and emotion, with faith and with strength, because I trust that there is a better Venezuela.”
|Opposition supporters take part in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]|
Wednesday’s march, an annual event that commemorates the 61st anniversary of the fall of a military dictatorship, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people. The ruling Socialist Party is holding a rival march, and officials have threatened to jail Guaido.
US Vice President Mike Pence issued a message of support to Venezuelans opposing the government on Tuesday, promising support for Guaido and branding Maduro a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power”.
“Yankee, go home,” Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez told a news conference in response.
She denounced “the perverse plans of Venezuela’s extreme right to endanger stability and peace”.
The pro-government Supreme Court, which annulled the powers of the congress in 2017, ruled on Monday not to recognise Guaido as its head and asked the state prosecutor’s office to determine whether he had committed a crime.
Maduro, who was inaugurated on January 10 following a 2018 election widely viewed as a sham, has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis, with inflation forecast to reach 10 million percent this year.
With additional reporting from Alicia Hernandez in Caracas and Elizabeth Melimopoulos in Doha.