VENEZUELA

Venezuelans take to the streets to demand Maduro step down

Opposition leverages discontent with inflation and lack of basic goods, stepping up pressure on government

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The Venezuelan opposition managed to galvanize thousands of supporters on Thursday to join in a march in Caracas calling for the National Electoral Council (CNE) to fast-track procedures needed to set up a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro. CNE’s slow-moving bureaucracy was the main pretext for the protest but the reasons demonstrators filled three large avenues in the capital go beyond that immediate cause. The opposition channeled the country’s frustration with high inflation and chronic food shortages, which remain insurmountable challenges for the Bolivarian regime.

The majority of Venezuelans voted for the opposition in the December 6, 2015 parliamentary elections thus giving it full control of the National Assembly. Their massive participation in the march on Thursday confirmed their support and the collapse of what once seemed like an invincible titan, the self-proclaimed Bolivarian Revolution. The administration’s insistence on blocking the recall referendum to determine whether the Maduro government should remain in power seems to have given demonstrators the strength to overcome obstacles along the way and the fear that the regime’s loudest spokespeople tried to spread.

The administration attempted to block people from joining the march by placing military roadblocks at the entrance routes to the city and barriers across express highways and by shutting down metro service. Still, it was only a partial victory judging by images published by news agencies and photos shared on social media. A privately-held TV station defied the government threat to suspend its licenses by interrupting its regular morning lineup —variety and self-help shows— to deliver updates on the march.

Pro-government demonstrators gathered along Avenida Bolívar to show their loyalty

Some people who were traveling to the capital managed to overcome all obstacles on the road but others, according to Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the opposition coalition that organized the march, were mugged on buses while stuck in traffic. MUD also reported lootings of businesses in the central city of Aragua.

Meanwhile, pro-government demonstrators gathered along Avenida Bolívar to show their loyalty to President Maduro. Corporación Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), the regime’s official TV station, showed close-ups and avoided those panoramic takes it used during massive gatherings held by the late Hugo Chávez. The deep economic crisis seems to have discouraged some chavista supporters from joining the pro-government rally.

Both groups swelled and finally culminated around 2pm local time (8pm Madrid time). The opposition read a statement that included a list of its complaints. First, leaders called for an 8pm cacerolazo, a protest where participants bang on pots and pans. The opposition also plans to show up at all CNE offices on Wednesday, September 7, to pressure the institution to announce a date for the second phase of the referendum process. And marches are scheduled to take place on September 14, a day after CNE is expected to announce the deadline for the opposition to collect the signatures of 20 percent of the electorate, thus validating the petition for referendum. And, after the recall vote, which could take place in the last week of October, MUD leaders say they will hold another march to call for “immediate implementation.”

The administration attempted to block people from joining the march by placing military roadblocks at the entrance routes to the city

Time is running out. If the referendum takes place after January 10, 2017, a Chavista vice president will replace Maduro for the rest of his term. If the vote takes place before and the opposition wins more votes than Maduro did during the last presidential election, Venezuela will hold new presidential elections.

Fujimori-style threat

President Nicolás Maduro showed up on Avenida Bolívar around 1pm and delivered a speech to say: “The coup d’état by the fascist right has failed.” The Venezuelan head of state estimated that no more than 30,000 citizens had joined the march. He also reminded the crowded of the pro-government rally for “The Taking of Caracas.” “I have a decree ready to strip senior officials of their immunity, especially members of parliament,” he added.

A Fujimori-style threat that would make the opposition and the international community consider other alternatives. At this critical time, the president seems willing to do anything to avoid the fall of the chavista republic.

During his remarks, Maduro breathed hope into the speech by invoking the spirit of the late Hugo Chávez by speaking in a blunt military style. Wearing a red jacket, the president seemed to be addressing his core group of supporters as he insulted Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the National Assembly, while trying to act content and nonchalant.

And, at some point during his appearance, he kissed former parliament president Diosdado Cabello on his bald pate and argued that the pro-government rally was a victory for the administration. “Those who threatened to attack Caracas ended up in the east. We are at the very center. The people are at the center of the city” he said. “And so I proclaim, they have failed. It is the victory of the people, of the revolution.”

English version by Dyane Jean-François.