Mass protests to sweep across Venezuela as Maduro clings on

Street demonstrations designed to drive Maduro out of office will be held on Saturday as he insists ‘we are indestructible’

Mass street protests designed to drive Nicolás Maduro out of office and into exile will sweep cities across Venezuela again on Saturday as Hugo Chávez’s successor fights for his political life and the future of their leftist Bolivarian revolution.

Maduro, who was first elected after Chávez’s death in 2013 and returned to office last year in a vote widely regarded as manipulated, has overseen a ruinous slide in the South American country’s fortunes.

Millions of citizens have fled overseas to escape hyperinflation, soaring crime and crippling shortages of food, medicine and healthcare.

A sudden and unexpected challenge has emerged this year in the form of Juan Guaidó, a hitherto little-known opposition politician who shot to fame on 23 January when he declared himself Venezuela’s rightful interim president.

Since then, Guaidó – whose growing coalition of international backers now includes the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and the European parliament – has for many Venezuelans become a desperately sought symbol of change.

“We’re happy because at last people feel hope,” said Adriana Gregori, a 20-year-old student at Caracas’s Central University of Venezuela who plans to take to the streets of the capital on Saturday. “People believe that the international community is backing us and the government is increasingly isolated.”

Jorge Maita, an activist from Guaidó’s party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), said their movement “had managed to give hope back to the whole of Venezuela – and this was so important because citizens had become demotivated”.

“We want the usurpation to end, a transition government to be formed and soon to be able to vote in free elections,” Maita added, quoting Guaidó’s three-point road map for Venezuela’s political future.

Workers from Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, participate in an “anti-imperialist” march promoted by the government to support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in front of the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela on January 31, 2019. - The US slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA on Monday in an attempt to cut off a vital source of funds propping up Maduro’s government. (Photo by YURI CORTEZ / AFP)YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Workers from Venezuela’s state oil company participate in a march promoted by the government to support Maduro in front of the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on 31 January. Photograph: Yuri Cortéz/AFP/Getty Images

Facing an unprecedented challenge to his rule, Maduro has sought to project power and placidity. In daily appearances on state television and social media he has appeared going jogging with troops, dancing with his wife, praying and presenting diplomatic credentials to incoming ambassadors from Africa and south-east Asia.

“WE ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE!” Maduro tweeted on Wednesday alongside a video in which he pounds a pair of conga drums with both hands.

But on the streets there is a palpable sense of apprehension. Armoured anti-riot vehicles can be seen speeding along highways outside the capital. Maduro’s reported decision to sell a fifth of Venezuela’s gold reserves to the United Arab Emirates to shore up his cash-strapped regime also suggests growing nervousness at the top. A rival, pro-Maduro march has also been called by the government in Caracas on Saturday.

Maduro and members of his inner circle paint Guaidó as a puppet of Donald Trump’s White House and part of a US-backed “coup” attempt designed to rout Chávez’s leftist dream.

At a Socialist party rally this week, Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuela’s vice-president, accused Trump, the US vice-president, Mike Pence, and the national security adviser, John Bolton, of conspiring to topple her leader in order to capture the country’s natural resources.

“Each of them – without exception – has said they are coming for Venezuela’s oil,” Rodríguez said.

“And what is our response? Get your Yankee hands off the oil industry!”

Those accusations have been bolstered by admissions from top US officials that oil is a key part of their calculations in siding with Guaidó.

“It will make a big difference to the US economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela,” Bolton told Fox News this week in comments that were seized upon by Maduro’s propaganda channels as proof of Trump’s malign intent.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela specialist from the Washington Office on Latin America, said: “This administration has been woefully tone deaf in its handling of the Venezuela crisis.”

Ramsey pointed to Trump’s naming of Elliott Abrams as his representative on Venezuela as another misstep. “Appointing a special envoy who has a checkered past of lying to Congress, for funneling weapons to death squads in Central America – I don’t think that was a particularly smart move either,” Ramsey added.

Ramsey said Saturday’s marches would ratchet up pressure on Maduro and remind him “that this renewed momentum isn’t likely to go away any time soon”. But they also represented a test.

“It has been over a week since Guaidó swore himself in as president and the longer this draws on the more it highlights the gap between democratic legitimacy and de facto power.

“There is a real challenge here for the opposition: how do you sustain momentum and create the sense that this is going somewhere when Maduro’s hold on the levers of power doesn’t appear to be weakened?”

Eva Golinger, an American former Chávez confidante who once called herself “a soldier” of his revolution, said she was concerned that violence during Saturday’s protests could make a volatile situation escalate.

“There could be a confrontation and the US could use it as an excuse. It seems to me the US is looking for an excuse to go in with military force to take Maduro out,” said Golinger, the author of a recent book about her years in Venezuela called Confidante of ‘Tyrants’.

“That will result in a bloody confrontation because no one is going to just go down on their knees and surrender,” Golinger warned. “There are people who are going to fight back – and they have a lot of weapons.”

On Friday Bolton insisted military action was not imminent and said the US was focused on a “peaceful transfer of power”. And in the UK, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, criticised the call by the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for more sanctions. “We oppose outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the US or anywhere else. There needs to be dialogue and a negotiated settlement to overcome the crisis,” Corbyn tweeted.

Additional reporting by Patricia Torres in Caracas


Tom Phillips in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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