Caracas (AFP) – Thousands of supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido took to the streets of Caracas on Saturday, demanding the departure of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, but the turnout was far less than expected.
Guaido had hoped to capitalize on the situation in Bolivia, where leftist leader Evo Morales resigned in the face of accusations of election fraud, to deal a death blow to his own political nemesis.
Opposition demonstrators did answer the call — about 5,000 of them marched, according to AFP’s crowd estimate. They carried national flags and banners with slogans such as “Maduro out” and “Follow Bolivia’s example.”
“We are not going to falter,” Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s acting president by about 50 countries, told crowds of supporters gathered in front of Bolivia’s embassy.
“Bolivia took 18 days, we have been at it for years. I ask all of Venezuela to keep protesting,” he said. “The struggle is until the takeover ends, until free elections are achieved.”
Guaido, 36, the head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, has thus far failed to capitalize on early momentum built after he declared himself the crisis-wracked country’s acting president in January.
His camp believes that the 2018 elections, which returned Maduro to office, were undermined by fraud. The opposition chief has urged the leftist leader, the political heir of late president Hugo Chavez, to call new elections.
“We have come today with very high expectations, we don’t want this to be just another march,” said Omar Kienzler, a 19-year-old law student.
– Failed uprising –
The numbers of protesters on Saturday was a far cry from the tens of thousands Guaido once rallied, but it was the opposition’s biggest rally since May, after a failed uprising.
“Evo is gone, Maduro is going — Venezuela shouts, we want freedom!” chanted 65-year-old Rafael Castillo.
Protests in Caracas and elsewhere unfolded without incident.
A poll by the Datanalisis firm on October 18-25 showed that 32 percent of respondents were inclined to protest in support of Guaido.
Venezuela is in the midst of its worst economic and social crisis in recent history. Inflation is expected to hit an eye-popping 200,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Outside major cities, power outages are frequent and medicines, petrol and cash are scarce.
The oil-rich country is subject to crippling US sanctions, including an embargo on crude.
The opposition blames the situation on official “corruption” but Guaido has been unable to galvanize enough support to move the political needle.
“If nothing major happens, Guaido’s leadership will end up on ice,” political analyst Jesus Castillo-Molleda told AFP.
A recent poll by the Delphos firm showed that 38 percent of Maduro opponents want a new leader to replace Guaido.
– Pro-Maduro rally –
In downtown Caracas, thousands of Chavistas dressed in red mobilized in support of Maduro and Morales.
“We’ve had yet another victory, a victory of peace,” Maduro told supporters by telephone, his message amplified by loudspeakers.
Maduro has warned that he will not tolerate any effort to replicate what he calls the “coup d’etat” that ended with Morales’ departure into exile in Mexico.
He accused the opposition of plotting violence with the backing of the United States and Colombia in a bid to destabilize his government.
On Friday, armed men stormed Guaido’s party headquarters in the eastern part of Caracas, taking security cameras and computers, money and ID documents.
In La Paz on Saturday, interim Bolivian leader Jeanine Anez called on Guaido to “liberate” Venezuela.
“It’s unfair that you have suffered through so much violence and repression,” she said in a video message broadcast on national television.