CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of Venezuelans, many draped in their country’s flag, took to the streets on Wednesday, answering the opposition’s call for a nationwide protest to force President Nicolás Maduro from office.
“Freedom, freedom!” one group chanted in Caracas, the capital.
“Today I am not afraid,” said Marta López, a 46-year-old business manager who added that the country’s economic crisis has become unbearable. “Today we all need to turn out to rescue our homeland.”
The demonstration is part of a renewed push by Venezuela’s opposition, which was left largely powerless and divided after a burst of antigovernment activism in 2017 was crushed by security forces. The opposition is hoping that a significant turnout on Wednesday will help persuade the nation’s military to break ranks with the president.
Scores of anti-government demonstrations throughout the country erupted overnight. Opposition leaders say the effort to oust Mr. Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term on Jan. 10, has a better chance of succeeding now because his government is collapsing under the weight of an economic crisis and is more isolated than ever.
The United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors have called the president an illegitimate dictator and signaled strong support for a plan to establish a transitional government.
“What we are witnessing is a unique, historic moment we have been preparing for, fighting for, over the past 20 years,” María Corina Machado, an opposition leader, said on Tuesday. “Obviously, it is the moment of greatest peril for all Venezuelans and the moment of greatest responsibility for those of us who are aware of what is at stake.”
Mr. Maduro and his allies have called for rival demonstrations on Wednesday, accusing opposition leaders, whom he calls “terrorists,” of trying to sell out Venezuela to the United States.
“The imperialists and the oligarchs are desperate to run Venezuela directly,” Mr. Maduro told supporters Tuesday night. “Are we going to surrender Venezuela’s sovereignty?”
Mr. Maduro will probably find it harder to weather this challenge to his legitimacy than he has in the past, opposition leaders and analysts say.
Vice President Mike Pence issued a video message to Venezuelans on Tuesday, sprinkled with words in Spanish, that urged them to take to the streets on Wednesday and that promised, “We will stay with you until democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of libertad.”
Discontent has deepened across Venezuela’s socioeconomic classes as hyperinflation has rendered wages worthless. Citizens of what was once one of the region’s wealthiest nations have starved to death and died from preventable diseases.
More than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, and those who stayed behind have struggled to find food and medicine while contending with water shortages and rampant crime.
Eva Golinger, an American lawyer who was a close friend of the leftist strongman Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, said the government could no longer count on its traditional bastions of support to overpower opposition movements, which in the past were led by wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans.
“The difference this time is that the discontent is not just opposition,” said Ms. Golinger, who wrote a memoir called “Confidante of ‘Tyrants,’ ” about her ties with Venezuelan and other leaders. “In fact, it’s mainly poor people who are tired of going without basic products and earning decent wages.”
Other notable differences include the youth of the politicians now leading the quest to oust Mr. Maduro, and the careful messaging they have deployed as they build support.
The opposition’s new leader, Juan Guaidó, is a 35-year-old industrial engineer who was little known at home or abroad until this month, when he was sworn in as president of the National Assembly. His appointment reinvigorated that opposition-dominated legislative body, which had become ineffectual and deeply unpopular in recent years.
“People had lost faith,” said Maria Amelia da Silva, 54, at one of the outdoor town hall-style meetings that opposition lawmakers convened in recent days to promote their plan. “Then a leader emerged, and this new leader has become our biggest hope.”
Mr. Guaidó says he is ready to lead an interim government that would distribute humanitarian aid, take steps to turn the economy around, and convene free and fair elections. He has argued that doing so would not violate the Constitution because Mr. Maduro, whose re-election last year was denounced as rigged, had “usurped” the presidency.
Past antigovernment demonstrations were dominated by rage and indignation, but Mr. Guaidó and his allies have tried to strike a hopeful, conciliatory tone. They have taken great pains to urge members of the military to turn their backs on Mr. Maduro, arguing that doing so would constitute not a coup, but adherence to their oath to uphold the Constitution.
On Monday night, Mr. Guaidó and his wife, Fabiana Rosales, recorded video messages appealing to the consciences — and the aspirations — of members of the armed forces.
“None of you can live in a dignified manner on your military paycheck, you can’t meet the basic needs of your children and relatives,” Mr. Guaidó said. “In the midst of this debacle, the people responsible for this crisis have forced you to clamp down and repress demonstrations of people who are only demanding to eat, to have access to health care, to have water at home, electricity.”
The town hall meetings, known as cabildos, have drawn thousands of people in recent days. Speakers have fired up crowds by talking about freedom of the press, economic policy and the bleakness of the holiday season in Venezuela as more and more people have moved abroad.
“You can feel hope in the air,” said Annie Stone, a 63-year-old retiree in Caracas who wore a rosary with yellow, blue and red beads — paying tribute to the Venezuelan flag — to a recent meeting. Referring to the youthful speakers, she added: “These aren’t superheroes that emerged overnight. But for the first time, we see a solution in sight.”
Some in the opposition have reservations about the current approach. Juan Andrés Mejía, a lawmaker, said making overtures to the military — the linchpin of their plan — was perilous.
“We’re living in a dictatorship,” he said. “Any contact we were to make is considered the worst of crimes.”
But Venezuelans said they were cleareyed about the dangers involved in resisting a government that has killed protesters and detained and tortured people suspected of being dissidents.
“We are forced to be optimistic because the risk we face is staring us in the face,” said Luz Mely Reyes, who runs the independent news site Efecto Cocuyo. “Those of us who are democrats know that if this time we fall short, with deep regret, we’ll have to bury what little remains of democracy in Venezuela.”
Orignially published in NYT.