Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets both for and against the government of Nicolás Maduro on Saturday in the country’s first big protests since a wave of unrest swept through Latin America from Chile to Bolivia and Ecuador.
In Caracas, opposition leader Juan Guaidó addressed tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters who marched from seven points of the capital to congregate in bright sunshine in the district of Chacaito.
The protest was a big test of Mr Guaidó’s leadership, which has flagged in recent months. When he first emerged as a challenger to Mr Maduro in January, declaring himself interim president, he galvanised the opposition and gave them hope of an imminent change of government. But as time has passed and Mr Maduro has refused to relinquish power his movement has run out of steam.
Saturday’s protest was big but still much smaller than those earlier in the year.
“People are tired and frightened, what do you expect?” said 46-year-old Cecilia Torres as she waited for Mr Guaidó to speak. “But look around you. There are thousands of us. We’re the majority, and we won’t stop and we won’t let our voices be silenced until we finally get rid of Maduro and return this country to democracy.”
The opposition staged smaller demonstrations in towns and cities across the country from the oil-rich Orinoco delta to the southern Amazon jungle and the Andean states of Táchira and Mérida. Mr Guaidó’s envoys abroad also called on Venezuelan exiles to march against Mr Maduro in cities across the world.
Addressing the Caracas crowd, Mr Guaidó announced more demonstrations for next week in a bid to breathe new life into his movement.
He still commands the support of the US and about 50 other countries who regard him as Venezuela’s legitimate president, even though Mr Maduro is the country’s de facto leader and enjoys the backing of China, Russia and Cuba.
While Mr Guaidó spoke, thousands of red-shirted supporters of Mr Maduro gathered close to the presidential palace in a counter-protest “against fascism and the coup-mongering the United States is promoting in Bolivia and Venezuela”.
The situation in Bolivia has prompted much debate in Venezuela, with both sides drawing their own conclusions from it.
After flawed elections last month that triggered violent protests against his rule, Bolivia’s longtime President Evo Morales has fled into exile in Mexico, claiming to be the victim of a US-orchestrated coup. He has been replaced on a temporary basis by opposition senator Jeanine Añez who has promised fresh elections.
The Venezuelan opposition takes some hope from Bolivia, arguing that if Bolivians can force Mr Morales from power, they can do the same with Mr Maduro. But there is one key difference between the countries: while in Bolivia Mr Morales lost the support of part of the military top brass, in Venezuela the armed forces remain loyal to Mr Maduro.
The Venezuelan left says Mr Morales has been deposed in a coup. At Saturday’s pro-government rally in Caracas some held up placards in support of the Bolivian leader and waved red, yellow and green Bolivian flags.
“We’re marching today in support of the Bolivian people, the indigenous people and their legitimate president Evo Morales,” said William Tovar, a red-shirted state worker. “Their fight is our fight.”
Before Saturday’s protests Mr Guaidó spoke to Ms Añez by phone and marched to the Bolivian embassy in Venezuela, from where he spoke to his supporters.
In Chile protesters have forced the centre-right government of Sebastián Piñera to offer concessions including a promise to draw up a new constitution, while in Ecuador leftists and indigenous activists forced President Lenín Moreno to back down on a plan to abolish fuel subsidies.
“There’s change afoot across Latin America, and the examples of Chile and Ecuador prove that street protests really do work,” said Edgar Pizano, a Venezuelan opposition marcher. “We just have to keep the faith.”