Venezuela’s Guaidó leads thousands in anti-Maduro protest
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A large crowd rallied around Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in a peaceful protest Saturday, answering his call to take to the streets in an attempt to reignite a campaign aimed at forcing President Nicolás Maduro from power.
Guaidó in a speech urged supporters to remain in the streets in the days ahead, pointing to the recent upheaval in Bolivia, where 18 days of protests prompted the resignation of Maduro’s ally, Evo Morales.
“If we stay at home, we will lose,” Guaidó said before marching peacefully with a small group of supporters to the Bolivian Embassy in eastern Caracas, an opposition stronghold.
“Today, tomorrow and Monday — we will be in the streets,” Guaidó said.
It was not clear he would be able to sustain momentum.
The crowds in Caracas where Guaidó spoke were larger than they had been in months — with an estimated five blocks of a wide Caracas avenue crowded with thousands of supporters.
But they lacked the size and combativeness of demonstrations in January, when Guaidó declared himself president, arguing that Maduro had “usurped” power and violated the constitution by starting a second term widely seen by opponents as illegitimate.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a geopolitical risk analyst who teaches at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said the march was not likely what Guaidó and his supporters had hoped for, especially at a time when the region has been inflamed with mass urban protest.
But, he added, “I’d be wary of proclaiming an ignominious end to the Guaidó movement,” noting that millions of Venezuelans have migrated and the government’s heavy-handed response to protests has scared away others.
Managing disappointment has long been a challenge for the opposition movement, Lansberg-Rodriguez said, adding that Guaidó has proven to be a resilient leader.
The demonstration in Caracas played out peacefully, with government security forces dressed in riot gear standing by on the perimeter without any of the firing of tear gas canisters as seen in violent protests earlier this year.
Retired office worker Deborah Angarita acknowledged that the crowd was not large, but she said she is determined to continue marching despite the government’s efforts to wear down their resistance.
“We will stay in the streets until the regime leaves,” said Angarita, who has been at all of the opposition marches this year.
Lisbeth Guerra said she closed her two electronics shops in Caracas to join the march because she is fed up with two decades of socialist rule that have ruined the economy and driven 20 of her relatives to leave the country.
“More than anything, I want other nations in the world to take note of our crisis,” she said, joining Guaidó supporters at a plaza in the opposition stronghold of Altamira.
Guaidó leaped to the center of Venezuela’s political fray when the opposition-dominated National Assembly appointed him as its leader. On Jan. 23, he assumed presidential powers pending new elections, with the United States and more than 50 other countries endorsing his move.
The United Nations Human Rights office has urged Venezuelan authorities to allow peaceful protests without any acts of intimidation and violence.
Opposition supporters across the country protested, including roughly 2,000 people who turned out at a rally in in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city where residents live with daily electrical blackouts and wait in mile-long gas lines to fuel up their cars.
Maduro’s socialist party also called its members to demonstrate in solidarity with Bolivia’s Morales, who resigned the presidency and fled into exile in Mexico on Tuesday, claiming a coup d’etat following mass protests accusing him of engineering a fraudulent re-election.
Maduro backers wearing red shirts boarded buses with blaring salsa music for a rally that culminated at the capital’s center.
Once-wealthy Venezuela is gripped by crisis, which critics blame on years of failed socialist rule, while Maduro frequently blames right-wing forces backed by the United States set on overthrowing him to steal the country’s vast oil reserves.
Maduro didn’t appear in person to address thousands of supporters, phoning in for a speech that was broadcast through speakers and transmitted on state TV.
“In Venezuela, nobody dares to mount a coup d’etat,” he said. “Here, the people defend the revolution, democracy, sovereignty and the constitution.”
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Sheyla Urdaneta in Maracaibo contributed to this report.
Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP