CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s opposition held a national day of protest Saturday, the opening salvo in its new strategy to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
After winning by a landslide in legislative elections last December, only to see its authority hamstrung by the courts, the opposition is counting on the power of the street to force the deeply unpopular Maduro to listen to calls for change.
Seventeen years into the socialist “revolution” launched by the president’s late mentor Hugo Chávez, a punishing economic crisis has stoked outrage in the once-booming oil giant, where chronic shortages of basic goods, long lines and soaring prices have become the norm.
After weeks debating its plan of attack, the fractious opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), announced it would use not one but all options available to oust Maduro, including a recall referendum and a constitutional amendment reducing the presidential term from six years to four.
But with an unfriendly Supreme Court likely to stand in its way, it is placing special emphasis on its call for protests — a potentially explosive path amid the tensions tearing at Venezuela, after anti-government demonstrations in 2014 left 43 people dead.
Huge crowds of opposition protesters decked out in the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag gathered in Caracas Saturday morning, answering the MUD leadership’s call on social media with the hashtag #MaduroResignNow.
Maduro was also leading a rally of his own in the capital, though turnout figures for the rival demos were not immediately available.
Officially, Maduro’s rally is a protest against the United States’ decision to renew sanctions on several top Venezuelan officials, first imposed a year ago over a government crack-down on opposition leaders.
Caracas recalled its top diplomat in Washington Wednesday over the renewed spat.
But beneath the anti-U.S. rhetoric that Maduro and Chávez have long relied upon to whip up their leftist supporters, the rally is a clear attempt to counter the opposition’s protests.
Maduro ‘can’t change reality’
The two demonstrations will be held in different parts of the capital, but the security situation is nevertheless tense given the violence of 2014.
“We’re not afraid of the game. It’s clear that it’s the people who decide,” said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, calling to oust Maduro by year’s end.
“The best exit [from the crisis] would be for him to allow a political solution, and the fastest way would be for him to agree to resign,” he said.
But Maduro, who took over from Chávez after his death in 2013, shows no willingness to quit without a fight.
“You won’t get rid of Maduro,” he said this week. “Maduro isn’t just Maduro, Maduro is the people and the revolution, what part of that don’t you understand?”
Cuban President Raúl Castro, one of Maduro’s top Latin American allies, said he was sending his Venezuelan counterpart his “unconditional support.”
The protests come against the backdrop of a deep economic morass exacerbated by the crash in the price of oil, which long funded Chávez and Maduro’s lavish social spending.
Despite holding the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela’s economy contracted 5.7 percent last year, its second year of recession.
Political analysts say all the constitutional options to force Maduro from power face likely rejection by the Supreme Court or the National Electoral Council — both of which the opposition accuses the president of packing with allies.
But the president can’t ignore the voice of the people either, said analyst Luis Vicente León.
“What neither the government, nor the Supreme Court, nor the National Electoral Council can do is change reality. The majority of the population wants change,” he said. “If an electoral process were held today, the opposition would win.”