Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro flooded the streets of Caracas Thursday in a major test of their strength and the government's ability to tolerate growing dissent.
Venezuelans Take to Streets of Caracas to Demand Recall Election
The march called the "taking of Caracas'' aims to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro this year.
The buildup to the protest has been tense, with Maduro's government jailing several prominent activists, deploying security forces across the city and warning of bloodshed.
Maduro said Tuesday that his opponents hope violence during the march will pave the way for a coup such as the one that briefly toppled his late predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002. He said authorities had arrested people possessing military fatigues and C4 explosives, and who had plans to fire upon the crowds dressed as national guard members. He didn't say who he believed was behind the alleged coup plan.
"If they're coming with coups, ambushes and political violence, the revolutionary will provide an uncommon and overwhelming response,'' Maduro told supporters.
Rather than dampening Venezuelans' enthusiasm, the "war-like'' rhetoric appears to be energizing the opposition, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst from Caracas.
Had the government minimized the protest's importance it would have likely failed to garner much support, he said. Better-off Venezuelans who are the opposition's political bedrock are on summer vacation and those less privileged are too busy standing in long lines for food and coping with the oil economy's collapse to engage in the heady ideological street battles of the kind that marked the early days of Chavez's rule 16 years ago.
"The government made a big mistake by throwing fuel onto the flames,'' said Pantoulas.
Among those taking part in the march, which organizers are hoping will draw 1 million people, are some 100 members of the Piaroa and Jiwi indigenous tribes. They arrived in Caracas on Wednesday for the protest after travelling more than 375 miles - by foot, canoe and bus - from the Amazon rainforest.
"We came to see if they'll free the political prisoners,'' said Miguelina Caballero through an interpreter. She was referring to someone from her Piaroa tribe who had been jailed for alleged fraud during December's congressional elections, a case the government used to disqualify three indigenous leaders from taking seats in the opposition-controlled legislature.
But delivering on their big promises won't be easy for Maduro's opponents.
The opposition has staged a half-dozen or so marches this year, some of which ended in clouds of tear gas as hard-core activists clashed with riot police, but posed no major risk to Maduro's grip on power. Even the anti-government protests in 2014 that were blamed for more than 40 deaths failed to rally the huge numbers now sought for Thursday's march by the hard-to-keep together Democratic Unity alliance.
The opposition hopes to force electoral authorities widely seen as pro-government to allow a recall vote this year. If Maduro loses, new elections would be held and polls indicate the opposition would win. But if a vote is delayed until after Jan. 10, and Maduro loses, his vice president would finish his term ending in 2019.
Electoral authorities have yet to set the date for the next stage of the complex process, in which the opposition must collect 4 million signatures over three days, with a referendum vote scheduled only once the signatures are validated.
The government plans a counter protest on Thursday, but Pantoulas said authorities will have a tougher time rallying supporters among the poor amid 700 percent inflation blamed for growing hunger and a collapse in wages.
"I don't know that the poor will join opposition march, but they're not going to partake in the counter-protest,'' said Pantoulas. "The fact that the poor barrios won't be supporting Chavismo is enough to damage the government.''
Also invigorating the opposition is a government crackdown.
Authorities over the weekend moved a prominent opposition leader, former San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, from house arrest back to prison while he awaits trial on civil rebellion charges stemming from the 2014 protests. Authorities said he was plotting to flee and carry out violence during the protests.
Two other activists, Yon Goicoechea and Carlos Melo, were also detained this week, with a top socialist leader accusing Goicoechea of carrying explosives.
There have been more subtle threats as well. Government workers say they've suffered retaliation for signing petitions seeking Maduro's removal and the opposition-leaning newspaper El Nacional said thugs threw excrement and Molotov cocktails at its building Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department accused Maduro of trying to bully Venezuelans from taking part in the march.
On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Debbier Wasserman Schultz issued a statement saying:
"I stand in solidarity with the Venezuelan people who are rightfully standing up against the oppressive Maduro government. Maduro and his cronies have allowed corruption to flourish and eroded human rights in the nation, but Venezuelans will not take it lying down — and today, todos somos Venezolanos. These protests are the culmination of years of gross neglect and mismanagement by Maduro, and make no mistake about it: the world is watching and we will not stand for his corruption."