Venezuelans throng streets of Caracas seeking recall referendum for president

Hundreds of thousands of people joined an opposition protest while Nicolás Maduro told a big rally of supporters: ‘Today we have defeated a coup attempt’

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured on to the streets of Caracas on Thursday to protest against the government of Nicolás Maduro and to demand a recall referendum, despite attempts by police and national guard units to block access to the capital.

Demonstrators came from across the country and crowded the capital’s main avenues. Some were draped in the Venezuelan flag, while others wore white T-shirts as a symbol for peace.

Carmen Díaz, a 32-year-old secretary said she was marching because she wanted to see change in her country, which has been crippled by runaway inflation, chronic shortages of basic goods and unbridled crime. “Enough of this corrupt regime that has us going hungry,” said Díaz.

Edgar Zambrano, a publicist, said he was protesting because “the country is sinking. We have to demand a recall referendum this year.”

Police and national guard units in riot gear watched as protesters filled the streets but there were no immediate reports of clashes. On Libertador Avenue, residents of one apartment block built as part of the government’s free housing program, threw rocks down on marchers, who simply moved to the other side of the street.

“We Venezuelans are peaceful and we cannot allow ourselves to be provoked by those who do not want change,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles on the eve of the march.

Maduro has accused the opposition, which is leading Thursday’s protest, of orchestrating a coup attempt against his socialist government. Several key opposition figures were detained in the run-up to the march on charges they were planning acts of violence during the protests.

Anti-government protesters throng the streets of Caracas demanding a recall referendum for the president.
Anti-government protesters throng the streets of Caracas demanding a recall referendum for the president. Photograph: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking to supporters on Wednesday, Maduro said that he had asked the supreme court to lift the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of the national assembly, which has been under opposition control since December. He cautioned that anyone suspected of being involved in a possible coup would be arrested.

But on Thursday, Maduro told supporters in central Caracas that, “Today we have defeated a coup attempt.”

“We have begun something new: a popular revolutionary counter-offensive,” Maduro said. He told the crowd that authorities had dismantled a “camp of Colombian paramilitaries” who he alleged would have participated in the coup, arresting 92 people. Maduro said he had tasked the interior minister, Néstor Reverol, who is wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges, to present the proof of the coup plot to Venezuelans “soon”.

While march leaders deny a coup is afoot, they do want to see Maduro ousted from office through a referendum to recall the embattled president.

Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, leader of the opposition coalition, known as MUD dismissed accusations that the march was part of a coup plot.

“When we go to Miraflores [the presidential palace] it will be to stay, with the votes of the people,” he told marchers, calling on them to return home peacefully.

Maduro was elected in 2013 to succeed the charismatic socialist president Hugo Chávez who ruled from 1999 until his death from cancer, but he has failed to garner the same popular support amid a downward economic spiral and rampant crime.

President Nicolás Maduro waves to supporters during a rally in Caracas on Thursday, in this image released by the presidential press office.
President Nicolás Maduro waves to supporters during a rally in Caracas on Thursday, in this image released by the presidential press office. Photograph: Marcelo Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Inflation has reached 700% as the country continues its recession, and basic food and medicine are in severely short supply. Many Venezuelans spend their days queueing for hours at supermarkets, but often go home empty-handed.

The crippling economic situation handed MUD an overwhelming victory in December’s parliamentary elections, giving many Venezuelans hope for change. But Maduro’s ruling socialist government has blocked any attempt by the opposition to legislate effectively, leaning on the supreme court to veto every major measure passed in the assembly.

Earlier this year, the opposition began organizing a recall vote. To trigger new elections, a referendum would have to be held this year. But the opposition has accused election officials of dragging their feet and hindering plans for the referendum. If the vote happens after 10 January, Maduro’s vice-president would take over, keeping the Socialist party in power.

While the opposition gathered in the eastern part of Caracas on Thursday, across town at a rally held by supporters of Maduro, Chavistas dressed in red T-shirts defended the government.

Police intercede with government sympathisers confronting opposition protesters in Caracas.
Police intercede with government sympathisers confronting opposition protesters in Caracas. Photograph: Cristian Hernandez/EPA

José Rangel, from the working-class Caracas neighborhood of Antímao said the two rallies showed “two different realities.

“One is a rally of the fascists who want to hand over the homeland to the United States,” Rangel told the state-run television station VTV. “And this is the rally of those who want peace, calm and love. Long live Maduro.”

Sandra Nieves, who identified herself as a worker in Venezuela’s oil industry, said she was at the rally to support the president. “We have to fight back, we won’t let ourselves be ruled by the oligarchy again,” she told VTV.

But the opposition has said it will not let up on protests until election officials set a date for the required collection signatures of 20% of Venezuelan voters, the last step needed to trigger the referendum.

“September first is not an end, it’s the beginning of a new definitive stage of the fight of the Venezuelan people,” MUD leader Chuo Torrealba said.


Sibylla Brodzinsky

The GuardianTramp

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