Venezuela’s Opposition Gears Up for Major Protests

Venezuela’s Opposition Gears Up for Major Protests

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leaders in Venezuela are calling for the biggest protests yet against the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro on Saturday, hoping to capitalize on international pressure to force him from power.

The cracks in Mr. Maduro’s armor are starting to add up.

American officials said they would no longer pay his government for oil sales in the United States, a principal source of Mr. Maduro’s hard currency.

The United States and more than two dozen other countries no longer recognize him as Venezuela’s president. And the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, has declared himself the country’s legitimate leader before large crowds, calling on the armed forces to join him to topple Mr. Maduro.

With Mr. Guaidó calling on his supporters to follow him into the streets again on Saturday, few times in Venezuela’s recent history has so much appeared to be hanging on a protest.

It could mark a pivotal moment for Mr. Guaidó’s fledgling bid to challenge Mr. Maduro’s hold on power, which began on Jan. 23, when he brought more than a million people into the streets across the country.

“This is our best political opportunity we’ve had,” said Margarita Lopez Maya, a retired political scientist in the capital, Caracas, who spent decades studying strongmen of the country’s past and was readying herself to protest against Mr. Maduro.

“The street is the key piece in the puzzle now,” she said. “Right now it’s the moment of the citizens.”

Whether protests alone can catalyze a shift in the political standoff in Venezuela is far from clear. As Mr. Maduro broke the power of the opposition-controlled legislature in 2017, demonstrators took to the streets for four months, only to be beaten back in clashes with Mr. Maduro’s security forces that left more than 100 people dead.

But this time, Mr. Maduro is not only facing a challenge on his streets, but increasing unity among his neighbors in the region that his rule is over.

Mr. Guaidó’s government has been busy appointing a team of de facto ambassadors to argue its case among the countries that have recognized him. American sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company could topple the country’s long-crippled economy.

On Thursday, the European Parliament recognized Mr. Guaidó as president. That fell short of protesters’ demands for recognition from the European Union itself, but France, Britain, Spain and Germany are expected to follow suit in the coming days.

“It’s perhaps the first time in years that the street isn’t the only factor in this game,” said Yon Goicoechea, a lawyer and political activist who has been imprisoned by Mr. Maduro’s government.

“If the government represses us as they have been, if they throw us all in jail, it won’t solve the problem,” he added. “This time, the problem isn’t just demonstrations, but the pressure that their economy is suffocating and their diplomatic isolation.”

Since Mr. Guaidó began his bid to oust Mr. Maduro this month, at least 40 people have been killed in clashes with protesters, human rights groups say, a steep escalation from previous protest movements in 2014 and 2017. Many hundreds have been jailed, according to human rights groups.

The crackdown has been made more lethal by Mr. Maudro’s deployment of a special police unit against activists, whose ranks may have included civilian vigilantes. Mr. Guaidó said the unit was sent to his home, a move the politician said was meant to “intimidate” him and his family.

With Mr. Guaidó’s face absent from state-controlled television stations, he took to the internet ahead of protests to make a plea to mobilize.

“We will return to the streets, where we have always been, to get our freedom back,” he said in an online video. “We will shout with spirit! Hope has been reborn.”

At an event in Miami on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence again gave strong support to the protesters in Venezuela.

“Across that country, in the largest cities and the smallest towns, people are rising up in defense of their rights,” he said. “This is no time for dialogue, this is the time for action. And the time has come to end the Maduro dictatorship once and for all.”

While Mr. Maduro remains unpopular among the vast majority of Venezuelans, some said they were not willing to join Mr. Guaidó on Saturday.

Andrea Pacheco, a 30-year-old editor who works for a left-wing news site in Caracas, said she recently became fed up with Mr. Maduro’s government and even attended the opposition protest on Jan. 23.

But she said Mr. Guaidó’s swearing in as “interim president” was a step too far for those like her who spent years backing the country’s former leftist president, Hugo Chávez.

The opposition, she said, “seems to forget that without the people who are the true Chavistas, they won’t be able to make it.”

David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said it was unclear whether Saturday’s protests were a make-or-break moment for Mr. Guaidó, but they had amounted to the first time in years that the opposition had been able to deliver quick results to those who backed them.

“The successful protests on the 23rd brought about results,” said Mr. Smilde, referring to the American sanctions and international recognition of Mr. Guaidó. “People can say now, ‘I participated and I saw things happen.’ That can lead them to decide to come out again.”

Still, the ultimate power over the disputed presidency may rest with the Venezuelan military, not the protesters.

Francisco Rodríguez, an economist who worked as an adviser for Mr. Maduro’s rival in the election last year, said large-scale mobilizations have occurred before and been put down by soldiers who appeared numb to the demands of protesters.

The biggest risk for Mr. Guaidó, he said, would be for Mr. Maduro to wait out the street mobilizations, especially if they eventually peter out in a few weeks.

“If the street protests decline, then the government will move in — and then they will imprison Guaidó or take some other move,” said Mr. Rodríguez.

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