Crowds were gathering on the streets of Venezuela’s capital Wednesday, braving overcast skies and the threat of violence, in what is expected to be the largest anti-government protest in more than a year and a critical test for President Nicolás Maduro.
As crowds amassed in Sucre, in eastern Caracas — one of the eight opposition rallying points — city council member Juan Carlos Vidal said violent clashes overnight with police had some protesters wary of taking the street, yet they still seemed to be showing up in force.
“This is a river of people,” he said, as the throngs blew horns and waved tri-color flags. “We’re hoping to see the people come out like never before.”
He also called on one-time supporters of the ruling party, or Chavistas, to join the protest.
“At this moment, on this historic occasion, we extend our hand to Chavistas who want to join us,” he said. “We welcome them with an embrace and all are welcome, because Venezuela needs them to rebuild.”
But in a country where your political allegiance can determine whether or not you have access to subsidized food and other government benefits, some are still wary.
Miguel Pérez took the subway from his home in Catia, a government stronghold, to protest in eastern Caracas, away from prying eyes. Asked what he was protesting he said “everything,” including the economic chaos that has forced more than 3.3 million Venezuelans to flee in recent years.
“I am protesting because I want to see my family reunited, “he said, fighting back tears. “And so that no other family has to go through what I’ve gone through.”
While the protesters in Sucre were allowed to gather peacefully, there were reports that other rallying points had been dispersed with tear gas early Wednesday.
The protests come after two days of tensions. The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, which tracks protests, said that there were at least 61 neighborhoods racked by demonstration in Caracas overnight Tuesday and that at least one person had died.
Notably, the protests hit areas once considered government bulwarks in western Caracas, like the 23 de Enero and Petare neighborhoods. And that’s fueling expectations that Wednesday’s marches could have broad support from Venezuela’s working class barrios.
Local media reported that protesters destroyed a statue of Hugo Chávez — the socialist firebrand and Maduro’s mentor — in the town of San Félix in eastern Venezuela.
The unrest comes as Washington, Colombia, Brazil and others in the international community say they no longer recognize Maduro’s rule and, instead, support the opposition controlled National Assembly.
On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence released a video promising to stand by the protesters until “democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of libertad.”
Maduro called Pence’s remarks “unacceptable” and ordered a “complete revision of our diplomatic relationship with the USA.” But the two nations haven’t swapped ambassadors since 2010.
Maduro will be holding his own rally Wednesday afternoon in downtown Caracas. State-run television showed crowds of red-clad supporters waving flags and chanting slogans. The dueling rallies raise the specter of partisan clashes.
National Assembly President Juan Guaidó – who has emerged as the leader of the revitalized opposition –urged his countrymen not to be baited by the “usurper” Maduro and his followers.
“Brothers and sisters, know that the weapon used by the usurper is violence,” he wrote on Twitter. “Ours on the other hand is the voice of millions of Venezuelans who will meet today on the streets, in peace for Venezuela.”
Sen. Marco Rubio also suggested that violence may be brewing. In a Tweet late Tuesday, the Florida Republican warned Venezuela’s intelligence service, SEBIN, to “reconsider the plan they have for [Wednesday] before it’s too late.”
“You are about to cross a line and trigger a response that believe me you are not prepared to face. You still have time to avoid this,” he wrote.
This article will be updated as more information becomes available.