Venezuelan opposition tests resolve

Published 9:56 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro promise to flood the streets of Caracas Thursday in a major test of their strength and the government’s ability to tolerate growing dissent.

The march called the “taking of Caracas” aims to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro this year.

The buildup to the protest has been tense, with Maduro’s government jailing several prominent activists, deploying security forces across the city and warning of bloodshed.

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Maduro this week repeatedly accused his opponents of plotting violence during the march to pave the way for a coup such as the one that briefly toppled his late predecessor Hugo Chavez in 2002. He said authorities had arrested people possessing military fatigues and C4 explosives, and who had plans to fire upon the crowds dressed as national guard members. He didn’t say who he believed was behind the alleged coup plan.

“If they’re coming with coups, ambushes and political violence, the revolutionary will provide an uncommon and overwhelming response,” Maduro told supporters on Tuesday.

Rather than dampening Venezuelans’ enthusiasm, the “war-like” rhetoric appears to be energizing the opposition, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst from Caracas.

Had the government minimized the protest’s importance it would have likely failed to garner much support, he said. Better-off Venezuelans who are the opposition’s political bedrock are on summer vacation and those less privileged are too busy standing in long lines for food and coping with the oil economy’s collapse to engage in the heady ideological street battles of the kind that marked the early days of Chavez’s rule 16 years ago.

“The government made a big mistake by throwing fuel onto the flames,” said Pantoulas.

Shortly after dawn Thursday, a few hundred people dressed in the yellow, red and blue colors of Venezuela’s flag began walking toward the three large avenues in eastern Caracas where demonstrators were to concentrate after midday.

Some held signs saying “I revoke,” a terse way of expressing support for the move to end Maduro’s mandate as president.

Among those taking part in the march, which organizers are hoping will draw 1 million people, are some 100 members of the Piaroa and Jiwi indigenous tribes. They arrived in Caracas on Wednesday for the protest after travelling more than 375 miles (600 kilometers) — by foot, canoe and bus — from the Amazon rainforest.