A day after Venezuela’s opposition pulled off one of the largest demonstrations in history demanding the ouster of President Nicolás Maduro, the embattled administration claimed the event a victory of its own.
In a televised conference, Interior Minister Néstor Reverol said authorities had stopped an opposition plot to kill marchers and trigger a coup. The administration said it found four weapons, including a sniper rifle, explosives and fatigues in an encampment close to the presidential palace.
The gear was “going to be used to selectively assassinate people in the Sept. 1 march,” Reverol said. The hopes were that the bloodshed would spark “a coup against our democracy,” he added.
Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said the government’s actions had prevented “a massacre.”
In a short video posted on Maduro’s Twitter feed, the government claimed that the plot was revealed after they re-imprisoned Daniel Ceballos. The former mayor of the restive border town of San Cristóbal, Ceballos has been in custody since 2014, and had been under house arrest since 2015. He was taken back to prison in the dead of night Aug. 27 in an action denounced by the U.S. government and human rights groups.
The government has also arrested political activists Yon Goicoechea and Carlos Melo, and issued a warrant for Lester Toledo. The opposition on Friday said Delson Guárate, the mayor of Mario Briceño in Aragua state, had also been detained.
Government critics claim that the administration is on a witch hunt and trying to take the focus off the nation’s tanking economy and its own unpopularity.
“All of this backlash is to try to hide the powerful and peaceful demonstration of Venezuelans on the street,” said Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles. “Change cannot be stopped.”
The opposition claims that more than 1 million people participated in Thursday’s march, dubbed “the taking of Caracas,” and eyewitnesses and images suggest it was one of the largest in recent memory. Maduro told supporters Thursday that the opposition had barely rallied 30,000 people.
The purpose of the march is to force the administration to hold a presidential recall this year. The National Electoral Council, which is in charge of that vote, has laid out a time line suggesting it won’t take place until 2017, if ever.
And some are wondering if the show of force will have a real effect in the short term.
“Despite impressive turnout, the protest is not enough to force the government’s hand,” Risa Grais-Targow, the director of Latin America for the Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based analysis firm, said in a statement. The ruling party “remains fully rallied around Maduro and their commitment to put off a recall referendum, since they want to avoid new elections at all costs.”
“Senior officials simply have too much to lose from a potential transition and if anything, the impressive turnout at [Thursday’s] protest will incentivize key stakeholders to further unite around Maduro and double down on their current strategy,” she wrote.
Next Wednesday, members of the opposition plan to march on the offices of the electoral authority demanding a date for the recall. And on Sept. 14, they plan to hold protests in the capitals of every state.