This nation’s deepening economic and political crisis may be fueling discontent, but the beleaguered administration on Wednesday proved, once again, that it controls the streets.
Authorities blocked roads, held dueling pro-government rallies and shut down almost four miles’ worth of metro stops to keep the opposition from reaching downtown Caracas.
The show of force, which included police, military and motorcycle-riding supporters known as colectivos kept protesters divided — and ultimately stopped them from making their way to the National Electoral Council.
The opposition is demanding that the body verify about 2 million signatures it turned in earlier this month in order to trigger new presidential elections. But the administration has made it clear it won’t allow a recall this year.
Plaza Venezuela, the rallying point for Wednesday’s actions, was completely cordoned off by security forces. Instead, several hundred pro-government supporters, clad in red, gathered in front of massive loudspeakers.
As protesters reorganized and resumed the march they were met by police, tear gas and portable metal barricades that completely obstructed the highway.
“The referendum is peace. We are defending the peace and you see how the government responds, by encircling us with the police and military,” Jesus Torrealba, the head of the coalition of opposition parties, said in a statement. “There are not enough [riot] shields and there are not enough weapons to stop a country that wants change.”
On Wednesday, however, there was enough security to break protesters into smaller groups and force them onto side streets.
As a cluster of people chanted, “It’s going to fall! It’s going to fall! This government is going to fall,” a 55-year-old woman waving a small Venezuelan flag grunted in disgust.
“I’ve heard that chant for 17 years, but the president is still there,” she said, refusing to provide her name for fear that authorities might shut down her bakery.
Asked why she was taking to the streets, she said she had no choice.
“I work every day —from Monday to Monday — and I can’t make ends meet, and I don’t even have any kids,” she said. “This is not how I thought I’d spend my old age.”
President Nicolás Maduro, whose term ends in 2019, has belittled the recall effort, calling it “not viable” and tantamount to a coup. He also said organizers had missed key deadlines and committed fraud by packing the petition with false names.
Late Wednesday, he announced that 519,000 troops would be mobilized Friday and Saturday in military exercises called “Independence 2016.”
“Nobody should dare mess with this sacred country born of liberators,” he said.
Osmar Castillo, a 44-year-old sociologist at the protests, watched the crowds break up into smaller groups after running into the first police barricade. He said the government was playing with fire by squelching the recall efforts.
“The people are going to keep marching because we’re marching for food, justice, medicine,” he said. “Sooner or later the government has to define the avenue for a transition — and I do hope it’s a democratic one.”
Similar marches took place in a handful of cities, and it wasn’t immediately clear if there had been clashes. In many parts of Caracas, however, it was business as usual, with winding lines around pharmacies and grocery stores as people scoured for scarce products like aspirin and diapers.
Venezuela is in a deep economic and political crisis, featuring shortages, triple-digit inflation, power outages and rampant crime. Polls have found that many are skipping meals or going hungry, and a full 70 percent say Maduro should be recalled.
But Maduro, a 53-year-old former union worker who narrowly won election in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, still holds many of the levers of power.
“Despite Venezuela’s unrelenting economic and humanitarian crises, it is not inconceivable that Maduro will remain in office until the end of his term,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, wrote Wednesday. “The opposition remains relatively weak and divided, unable to capitalize on its majority in the national assembly to drive the country’s political dynamics and policy agenda.”
The socialist administration has long maintained that it’s the victim of a global conspiracy.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez said the country was facing a financial “blockade” that was being orchestrated by Washington and other “imperial forces.” Most economists, however, say falling oil revenue, combined with Draconian price and currency controls, have devastated the economy and gutted the private sector.
On Tuesday, Maduro said a U.S. AWACS airplane had violated Venezuelan airspace in recent days. He also accused OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro of being a CIA plant who wants to destabilize the country.
The Uruguayan diplomat responded in a scathing letter. He said he wasn’t a member of the CIA and had never betrayed his principles, but said Maduro had betrayed Venezuela.
“You have an obligation to public decency to hold the recall referendum in 2016, because when politics are polarized the decision must go back to the people,” Almagro wrote. “To deny the people that vote, to deny them the possibility of deciding, would make you just another petty dictator, like so many this hemisphere has had.”
Despite the economic hardships, there are still many who don’t consider the opposition a viable alternative.
Raul Pacheco, a 52-year-old construction worker, had gone to the pro-government rally at the National Electoral Council, the building that was supposed to be the end-point for the opposition march.
He said all of the economic problems — from inflation to shortages — were the product of opposition and capitalist sabotage.
“They’re waging a war against us that doesn’t respect the lives of children, the old people or anyone,” he said. “They don’t want a referendum, they want to take power by force. But we’ll never let them.”