Hundreds of thousands of white-clad Venezuelans jammed the streets of the capital Thursday in an unprecedented show of force demanding a presidential recall this year.
Despite tight security, blockades and reports of tear gas and looting, anti-government protesters descended on Caracas starting early, waving tri-color flags and singing the national anthem. Organizers said the provocatively named “taking of Caracas” was just the beginning of a series of mass mobilizations aimed at cutting short the presidency of Nicolás Maduro.
Even as activists boasted of holding the capital’s largest rally, it’s far from clear whether it marks some sort of turning point for the Andean nation and Maduro, who narrowly won election in 2013.
I walked 18 kilometers today, and never in my life have I seen a river of humanity like this.
Roberto Smith, opposition politician
In a statement released at the end of the march, organizers said that it was up to the people in the streets to save the country from the socialist administration that holds almost all of the levers of power, including the military and the courts.
“We have to rescue the nation … from the lack of food and the excess of bullets; rescue it from the lack of medicine and the excess of anxiety,” the manifesto read. “More than anything, we have to rescue it from a president, a regime and a system that have put a dictatorship where a democracy should be.”
Fueled by grinding food and medicine shortages, rampant crime and soaring inflation (expected to be in excess of 700 percent this year), the march drew people from around the nation and from all social classes. Indigenous leaders, in their traditional feathered garb, mixed with protesters in wheelchairs.
Images and eyewitnesses said it was among the largest marches in recent history, turning dozens of blocks into a rippling white mass of discontent.
“I walked 18 kilometers today and never in my life have I seen a river of humanity like this,” said Roberto Smith, an opposition politician who traveled with a delegation of thousands from Vargas state. “It was a swollen river that swept away everything in its path.”
More than a demonstration, the day seemed like a national strike, he said as shops and businesses closed to allow their employees to take to the streets.
“This isn’t the country I grew up in, and it’s not the one I want my children to live in,” Olga Delgado, a school administrator who arrived to the protest on crutches following hip-replacement surgery, told The Associated Press.
Maduro and his allies tried to write off the protest, saying it had “failed” and that it was little more than a cover for a foreign-backed coup attempt. In recent days, the administration had taken extraordinary measures to minimize the march, including blocking roads, jailing politicians and banning the use of drones, which might provide a sense of the size of the crowds. The country also barred and deported at least a half-dozen foreign journalists (including from the Miami Herald) in recent days.
Addressing a smaller crowd of government supporters Thursday, Maduro said destabilization plots had been “defeated” but that radicals and agitators would be hunted down.
“Never again will the right fill the streets of the fatherland with violence,” he said. “The violent and fascist plans have failed again. Victory belongs to the people.”
As of Thursday afternoon, there were no immediate reports of the violence that marred national protests in 2014 and left more than 43 dead from both factions.
Even so, opposition activists said shops in the city of Maracay were being looted and that some protesters had been chased off with tear gas and threatened by pro-government motorcycle gangs.
The opposition demonstration ended in the afternoon, with organizers laying out the next steps, including a nationwide “cacerolazo” or pot-banging Thursday night to protest the lack of food. They’re also planning marches the next two Wednesdays to press the National Electoral Council to move ahead with the referendum.
Maduro and his allies say they’re not going anywhere. They have said that a recall referendum — if it does happen — won’t occur until after Jan. 10, 2017. If Maduro were voted out of office after that date, his handpicked vice president would finish out his term through 2019, allowing the administration to manage the transition.
For some, the only solution is rapid change at the top.
Venezuela’s deep social, economic and political “challenges can only be mitigated through the application of reforms that would represent a stark contrast to the policies of the current government,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, wrote in an op-ed Thursday. “Because Venezuela’s problems largely stem from poor government administration, a swift transition to a democratic, transparent and efficient government is the only way to redirect the country … It is well past time for a political transition in Venezuela.”
If Maduro felt threatened by the “taking” of the capital, he didn’t acknowledge it publicly.
“Peace and life have triumphed,” he wrote on Twitter late Thursday. “Thank you beloved fatherland. Thank you Caracas.”