© AFP / by Maria Isabel Sanchez | Venezuela riot police were deployed in their hundreds to keep anti-government protesters away from the president’s supporters
CARACAS (AFP) – Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed to have mobilized a million demonstrators in the biggest rally in decades, vowing weekly mass protests to demand a referendum on ousting him from power.
Police deployed in their hundreds to keep anti-government protesters angry at food and medicine shortages apart from Maduro’s supporters, who vowed to defend his “socialist revolution.”
The rallies raised fears of violence in the oil-rich South American state, where anti-government protests in 2014 led to clashes with police that left 43 people dead.
The leader of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable, Jesus Torrealba, told AFP it was the “biggest rally in recent decades” with “between 950,000 and 1.1 million people” taking part.
Demonstrators dressed in white marched in the east of the capital, yelling “Venezuela is hungry” and “This government is going to fall.”
“We either come out to march or we will die of hunger. We are no longer afraid of the government,” said one demonstrator, Ana Gonzalez, 53.
The rallies come at a highly volatile time for Venezuela, where a plunge in prices for oil exports has led to shortages, violent crime and outbreaks of looting.
“This is a historic march. Today begins a definitive stage in this struggle,” Torrealba said.
– ‘People’ for Maduro –
Thousands of Maduro supporters in red T-shirts and caps meanwhile rallied in the central Plaza Bolivar yelling to their leader: “The people are with you.”
Maduro estimated his supporters’ turnout at up to 30,000.
“Today we have defeated a coup d’etat,” he told the crowd. “They have failed once again. The victory is ours.”
The opposition blames Maduro for the economic crisis and wants a referendum on removing him from power. He has branded the effort a right-wing “coup.”
“We are here at the call of our president, to defend the revolution,” said 37-year-old housewife Carolina Aponte at the pro-government rally.
The authorities arrested three opposition leaders in the days ahead of the march. Senior opposition figure Henrique Capriles said on Thursday that two mayors had also been arrested.
Thursday’s marches remained mostly peaceful, finishing in the mid-afternoon, but isolated clashes between demonstrators and security officers did occur, with some violent incidents reported in other cities.
After the protest, state security agents fired tear gas against protestors who tried to block the main highway of the city after a group of masked men threw stones at some officers.
Opposition leaders and human rights organizations also reported outbreaks of violence in Maracay and San Cristobal.
The MUD said in a statement it would hold two further nationwide demonstrations: at electoral offices on September 7, and a “national mobilization day” on September 14.
– Referendum drive –
The referendum’s timing lies at the heart of the battle.
If it takes place before January 10 and Maduro loses, new elections must be held. If he loses in a recall after that date, he would simply hand power to his hand-picked vice president.
Maduro said Thursday he had prepared a decree to strip lawmakers in the National Assembly of their immunity. He accused the opposition speaker of the legislature, Henry Ramos Allup, of inciting violence.
The opposition “cannot be intimidated,” Ramos retorted.
“President Maduro, look at all these people who have poured into the streets of Caracas,” he said.
The polling firm Venebarometro says 64 percent of the electorate would vote against Maduro. A study by another pollster, Datanalisis, indicated eight out of 10 Venezuelans want a change of government.
Maduro blames the crisis on the collapse of oil prices and an “economic war” by businesses backed by US “imperialism.”
He faces deep public discontent over shortages of basic goods and an inflation rate projected to hit 720 percent this year.
Analysts have warned of a repeat of the deadly 2014 clashes that left numerous opposition leaders in prison.
Hundreds of thousands of people have marched through the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in rival demonstrations.
Opposition supporters, staging their largest rally for two years, called for President Nicolas Maduro’s removal.
They blame him for Venezuela’s economic crisis and accuse the electoral commission of delaying a referendum that could shorten his stay in power.
Mr Maduro, whose supporters also rallied in huge numbers, accused the opposition of trying to stage a coup.
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The government said the opposition had failed to attract the one million people they were expecting in their march, in what the authorities dubbed the “Takeover of Caracas”.
“The nation has triumphed. They wanted to intimidate the people but the people are here,” said Mr Maduro at a rally in central Caracas.
“We have defeated an attempted coup that tried to fill Venezuela and Caracas with violence, death,” he said.
There were clashes between anti-Maduro protesters and police. Reuters
But opposition leaders said their protest had gathered at least their anticipated one million people.
“We have shown to the world the importance of Venezuela and how much it wants change,” said opposition politician Jesus Torrealba.
Dressed predominantly in white, they chanted “we are going to bring down Maduro”.
Protesters said they had enough of the policies of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
“We are going to defeat hunger, crime, inflation and corruption. They’ve done nothing in 17 years. Their time is finished,” Naty Gutierrez told Reuters news agency.
A small group of protesters clashed with riot police as the peaceful rally ended.
Mr Maduro’s six-year term ends in January 2019. EPA
Government supporters hold a picture of the late president, Hugo Chavez, during a rival march in Caracas. Reuters
In the run-up to the march, a number of opposition politicians were detained.
Last week, Daniel Ceballos of the opposition Popular Will party was returned to prison after having spent a year under house arrest awaiting trial on charges of rebellion.
The Interior Ministry said he was planning on escaping from house arrest to carry out acts of violence during Thursday’s rally.
Mr Ceballos was one of the politicians arrested in 2014 over violent anti-government protests that swept through Venezuela at the time.
Forty-three people on both sides of the political divide where killed during those protests.
Popular Will party activists Carlos Melo and Yon Goicoechea have also been arrested over the past few days, the first suspected of carrying a “detonator cord” and the latter of carrying explosives.
The opposition hopes the march will pressure the electoral authorities into allowing them to launch the second petition needed to trigger the recall referendum as soon as possible.
Timing is key as the date when the referendum is held will determine what happens next.
If a referendum should go against the president before 10 January, new elections will be held, which the opposition hopes to win.
But if it is held after that date and Mr Maduro is recalled, his loyal vice-president will serve out the end of his term until 2019.
Tags: anti-government protesters, Caracas, coup d'etat, Democratic Unity Roundtable, Jesus Torrealba, mass protests, Nicolas Maduro, oil prices, Plaza Bolivar, Popular Will party, president's supporters, riot police, socialist, socialist revolution, Venezuela, Venezuela's economic crisis