Venezuela’s opposition vows to escalate pressure amid deepening crisis

University students protest against President Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela.
University students protest against President Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela. AP

Venezuela’s opposition Wednesday warned the socialist administration of Nicolás Maduro that it will face a massive march on the heart of the capital next week unless it allows a presidential recall to move forward this year.

At the end of a national demonstration that reportedly left at least one dead, and dozens of wounded and detained, opposition leaders accused Maduro of violating the constitution in order to cling to power.

Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate and the governor of Miranda State, said Maduro had until next week to allow the recall to move forward. Otherwise, protestors will descend on the Miraflores presidential palace.

“I tell the coward in Miraflores that he can either restore the constitutional order and end the coup, or on Nov. 3 the people of Venezuela will come to Caracas and march on Miraflores,” he said.

If that action does materialize, it would be a significant escalation of tensions and likely lead to clashes with pro-government supporters. Demonstrations in 2014 left at least 43 dead on both sides of the political divide.

Wednesday’s announcement came as tens of thousands of Venezuelans flooded the streets amid growing frustration and scattered reports of clashes around the country. Interior Minister Néstor Reverol said a policeman from Miranda state had been shot to death while controlling crowds. In addition, social media showed people who had been sprayed with police buckshot, and the head of the human rights group Foro Penal said that more than 20 people had been injured and at least 140 detained. But those numbers were likely to increase overnight.

Wednesday’s march was called the “The Taking of Venezuela” and came six days after the government suspended the recall. It also came the day after the opposition-controlled congress voted to begin a “political trial” against Maduro that, in theory, could lead to his removal but is mostly seen as symbolic.

Even as Maduro’s popularity remains near all-time lows amid a crippling economic and social crisis, he controls almost all of the levers of power, including the courts and, crucially, the military, which has repeatedly pledged its allegiance.

That has left the opposition backed into a corner. Even as there are incipient attempts to open up a dialogue with the government, many see mass demonstrations as the only way of making themselves heard.

As in previous anti-government demonstrations, the administration took emergency measures to limit the impact. The military closed off roads, a large section of the Caracas metro was shut down, and journalists who were on their way to Venezuela to cover the event were being turned back at the airport. Anti-government demonstrators also blocked roads, toppling a traffic sign across a freeway near the capital.

Maduro has been warning that the marches are part of a broader, Washington-backed destabilization plot.

“They don’t want dialogue because they want a coup … they want a gringo intervention in Venezuela,” he told a crowd of supporters Wednesday, according to state-run AVN news agency. “I am willing to do anything I have to do to defend the people’s right to life, peace, prosperity and national happiness.”

José Gregorio Vielma Mora, the governor of the restive border state of Táchira, accused protestors of trying to incite a clash.

“We’re asking the security [apparatus] to keep order, and we report, once again, that the opposition is looking for deaths and injuries,” he wrote on Twitter.

Even as Wednesday’s march aimed to underscore the opposition’s strength, there were signs of tension within the disparate coalition.

On Monday, the government and the executive secretary of the MUD opposition coalition, Jesús Torrealba, announced that the two sides would sit down to meet this weekend in Vatican-brokered talks.

But within hours, some of the leading members of the MUD coalition — including Capriles and jailed political leader Leopoldo López — said talks couldn’t take place without the release of political prisoners and guarantees that the recall would move forward.

“We’re asking the people who want change not to play the government’s game,” Capriles warned. “They’re always trying to divide us. And if the [coalition] is destroyed, we’ll have this administration forever.”

Maduro’s term lasts until 2019, and the opposition sees the recall as one of the few peaceful ways of cutting it short.

Although congress launched a “political trial” against the president on Tuesday, analysts say it’s likely a toothless measure. If it does pass congress, it would still have to be signed off by two more bodies — including the government-controlled Supreme Court — before Maduro could be forced to step down.

“Regardless of whether or how the dialogue proceeds, the legislature’s trial against Maduro is unlikely to yield any meaningful results,” Stratfor, a U.S.-based analytical firm, said in a statement. “The president has not recognized the National Assembly’s authority for the better part of a year, and his stance probably will not change anytime soon — especially since the opposition has not coalesced into a solid coalition that can stand against him.”

Saddled with a deep economic, social and political crisis, Maduro has been struggling to hold on to power. And key to that strategy has been blocking the recall. On Wednesday, organizers were supposed to begin the three-day process of collecting signatures from 20 percent of registered voters — a step needed to trigger the recall.

But last week, the courts suspended that stage indefinitely, saying there had been fraud in a previous signature collection. The opposition says the maneuver is a bald attempt to illegally shut down the recall as Maduro’s approval ratings are hovering near 20 percent and polls show that two-thirds of the electorate would vote to oust him.