Venezuela's government fights to disrupt massive protest against president
Inflation, crime and food shortages spark demand for referendum to remove Maduro
Venezuela's embattled socialist government did all it could to sabotage Thursday's protest in Caracas.
It arrested opposition leaders and threatened to fire state workers who took part in the march. Authorities blocked roads into the city and shut down key subway stations, forcing people to walk for kilometres to reach the protest.
None of it mattered. Thursday's demonstration was one of the largest in the past decade.
A crowd, reported by news agencies to be in the hundreds of thousands, flooded into the capital city from all over the country. Chanting slogans and honking horns, they expressed their disgust over triple-digit inflation, shortages of food and medicine and out-of-control crime.
"This is the proof that a presidential recall is viewed by the vast majority of the people as the solution to the crisis," said Tomas Guanipa, an opposition congressman.
The government responded with a much smaller counter-demonstration in downtown Caracas attended mainly by public sector workers.
In a speech, Maduro called the opposition protest part of a U.S.-backed conspiracy and likened it to unrest in 2002 that briefly ousted his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez, who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution 17 years ago.
"Today has been an example of how to contain fascism in peace," said Maduro, who was elected three years ago. "We have stopped the coup today, the violent, fascist ambush."
For one thing, rights groups point out that nearly all government institutions are controlled by the executive branch.
That includes the Supreme Electoral Council, which has been dragging its feet on organizing a recall. Its president, Tibisay Lucena, has suggested that the process of gathering and validating the four million signatures required to trigger the recall, would take too long and that the vote would not be held until next year.
Timing is key. If the recall is held before Jan. 10, 2017, and Maduro loses, new elections would be held, which polls suggest the opposition would win. But if the vote is held later and Maduro loses, his vice-president would finish his term, leaving the socialists in power until 2019.
Even so, analysts described Thursday's march as an embarrassment to the government, which responded with a heavy hand.
Several foreign correspondents (myself included) were banned from entering Venezuela to cover the protest, and security agents expelled a Miami Herald reporter Wednesday night.
The government arrested two opposition leaders this week, accusing them of possessing bomb-making materials, and detained about a dozen more on Thursday, according to Reuters. In addition, police stopped dozens of buses heading for Caracas, blocked some roads, and reduced a four-lane highway leading into city to just one lane, causing huge traffic snarls.
Carlos Correa, who heads a Caracas-based free-speech NGO called Espacio Publico, said Thursday's massive turnout could help reactivate the opposition. Following a government crackdown on student-led demonstrations in 2014 in which 43 people were killed, Correa said that Venezuelans had, for the most part, refrained from taking to the streets.
Now, he said, "People are turning out despite government threats. These mobilizations cannot be ignored. They do have a political impact."
Indeed, some observers believe that the best way to bring about change is by taking over the streets and convincing members of Maduro's inner circle as well as the powerful armed forces that the president should step down to avoid more chaos and bloodshed.
Jesus Torrealba, the chief spokesman for the opposition, has already called for another round of protests starting next Wednesday. He said, "Today is the beginning of the final stage of our fight."