Tens of thousands of chanting protesters marched Thursday in a major demonstration in the Venezuelan capital aimed at forcing a vote on recalling socialist President Nicolás Maduro.
Opposition parties hailed the protest, dubbed the “Taking of Caracas,” as the beginning of a new stage in their struggle to end the “revolution” started in 1999 by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Maduro’s popularity has plunged as the economy of this oil-rich country has sharply contracted and hunger has grown widespread.
The government, clearly nervous, arrested several prominent opposition activists in the days leading up to the protest and barred at least six foreign journalists from entering the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fearing violence, downtown shops closed, and police in yellow vests took up positions around the city.
But the demonstration had an upbeat note, with participants dancing and joking, even as their chants reflected growing frustration with the government. “There’s no eggs, there’s no chicken, there’s nothing here,” one group yelled.
Others shouted: “It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall, the government is going to fall.”
Maduro claimed that turnout was about 30,000, but the crowd appeared far larger. Opposition groups estimated it at over 1 million.
The opposition has launched a recall drive to force new elections this year, three years before the end of Maduro’s term. Electoral officials, who are widely perceived to be government loyalists, have announced a timetable that would probably push the referendum into next year. The timing is important: If Maduro lost a recall vote next year, his vice president would succeed him, but if the referendum ousts him this year, an early presidential election would be held.
Opposition leaders announced they would hold new rallies on Sept. 7 and 14 to press the electoral authorities to move faster on setting up the referendum.
“Today is the beginning of the final stage of our fight,” said Jesus Torrealba, secretary-general of the Democratic Unity alliance.
The opposition has tried to organize demonstrations before but lacked organization and failed to attract large numbers of people. On Thursday, though, demonstrators arrived in Caracas from as far away as the Amazon. Many wore white, a symbol of their commitment to peaceful protest. Others sported hats or T-shirts with the Venezuelan flag. Some carried signs reading “We’re hungry” or “We need medicine now.”
“I’m protesting today because we’re hungry,” said Luis González, a 63-year-old welder from Petare, one of the biggest slums in Venezuela. He said that last week, he had to punch a new hole in his belt because of how much thinner he had become.
González added that, like many Venezuelans, he used to support Chavez, who established generous social programs for the poor. But the welder has changed his mind.
“This government ruined this country, and this man [Maduro] is only intimidating Venezuelans,” González said.
Venezuela is enduring a severe recession due to the fall in global oil prices and what many describe as the government’s poor economic management.
Shortages are so acute that people routinely have to stand on line for hours outside stores, hoping to get food and medicine. Inflation is expected to hit over 700 percent this year.
“Once a week I have to wake up at 1 a.m. to join in a line at a supermarket,” said a 72-year-old demonstrator, Agustina de Salazar.
Another protester, Edgar Perez, 55, said he left his house in the village of Barlovento — an hour east of Caracas — just after sunrise to be able to join the march when it began Thursday morning. He said National Guard members were out in force on the main highways leading to Caracas.
“The guards let us pass through, but they were making the traffic very slow,” said the retiree.
He said that in Barlovento the situation is even worse than in the capital. “We have to gather with the neighbors and share our food to make a communal meal in order to have something decent to eat.”
Several thousand government supporters in red shirts held a smaller counterprotest in downtown Caracas.