Rival camps rally across Venezuela as pressure piles on Maduro

Rival Camps Rally

Rival Camps Rally

Venezuela’s opposition and government supporters returned to the streets for rival demonstrations Wednesday as tension mounted over a push for a vote on driving President Nicolas Maduro from power in the crisis-stricken country.

A week after a mass protest in the capital, supporters of the opposition MUD coalition rallied nationwide near offices of the electoral authorities demanding a recall referendum against Maduro by the end of the year.

The leftist leader’s supporters held rival rallies of their own nearby, raising fears of potential clashes.

Oil giant Venezuela’s once booming economy has gone into meltdown as crude prices have crashed since mid-2014.

Outrage is mounting over shortages of food and medicine, threatening Maduro and the socialist “revolution” launched in 1999 by his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

“We have to do something. Voting and peaceful protest are the only weapons we have,” said Rosmina Castillo, 52, demonstrating in the town of Los Teques, just southwest of the capital Caracas.

“The government holds virtually all the power and can’t come up with any more ways of avoiding the recall.”

She was part of a crowd of some 1,500 opposition protesters who gathered a block away from roughly the same number of Maduro supporters. A metal barrier and lines of police kept them apart.

“We’re here defending the revolution against an attack by this unpatriotic right. We stand firm with Maduro,” said state oil company employee Alexander Rangel at a pro-government demo in Caracas.

The target of the protests, the electoral authorities’ 24 regional offices, were closed and tightly guarded by police.

Arrests

Maduro accuses his opponents of plotting protest violence as part of plans to oust him in a “coup.”

The center-right opposition says the government is waging an authoritarian crackdown. Dozens of protesters were arrested in the aftermath of last Thursday’s rally, according to rights groups.

The opposition says around one million people flooded the streets of Caracas that day, the biggest protest in decades. Maduro put the turnout at 30,000 people maximum.

But the massive crowds, dressed in white and venting months of pent-up anger, gave the opposition new momentum.

“The opposition’s road map is to try to keep people participating. The challenge is to stay active and peaceful in the street while pushing a referendum,” said political analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

‘In war, anything goes’

Tension is running high. The two sides “want to annihilate each other,” said sociologist Maryclen Stelling. “And unfortunately in war, anything goes.”

Long lines and bare supermarket shelves have become the norm in Venezuela, and inflation is forecast to top 700 percent this year.

Outbreaks of looting have erupted and violent crime is festering.

Maduro blames the crisis on an “economic war” by Venezuelan elites backed by “American imperialism.”

The opposition has won control of the legislature, but has been hamstrung by a Supreme Court it condemns as loyal to Maduro.

If Maduro loses a recall vote before January 10 — as opinion polls predict he would — it would trigger new elections. After that date, he would simply hand power to his hand-picked vice president.

Maduro’s number two, Diosdado Cabello, vowed there was “no chance” of the recall referendum taking place this year.

“We demand the constitution be respected. We have the right to a referendum,” fired back Jesus Torrealba, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Cracks in Maduro camp

In the next stage of the referendum process, the opposition must gather four million signatures in three days.

Electoral authorities are due next Tuesday to announce the dates for that petition.

The opposition has called for more protests the following day.

“They are pushing the people’s patience,” senior opposition figure Henrique Capriles said of Maduro’s side.

“What will happen if they keep pushing? A social explosion.”

Maduro is meanwhile facing growing pressure within his own camp.

Former Chavez minister Ana Elisa Osorio, once a steadfast ally, told AFP this week that recent events show Maduro is “not up to the job.”