Venezuelans Take to the Streets With Maduro Under Pressure

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelans took to the streets Wednesday in the biggest opposition rally in more than a year as critics of President Nicolas Maduro’s regime push for change on a symbolic day marking the end of a military dictatorship in the late 1950’s.

Venezuelans Take to the Streets With Maduro Under Pressure

A reinvigorated opposition is rallying behind young opposition leader Juan Guaido. They invoke constitutional amendments that lay out a path to restore democratic order after Maduro began a new term widely deemed to be illegitimate due to fraudulent elections. Venezuela’s bonds surged on optimism that a regime change could eventually lead to a deal to restructure the country’s defaulted debt.

Streams of people carrying flags and whistles mobilized from neighborhoods across the capital while a major avenue in eastern Caracas was blocked near a stage where Guaido is scheduled to speak to supporters. The National Guard tried to disperse protesters in the El Paraiso neighborhood with tear gas, according to images shared on social media. Local press showed crowds gathering in other major cities like Valencia, Maracaibo and Barquisimeto.

“Enough is enough,” screamed Daniel Lecich, 35 year-old architect, carrying a tricolor flag. “These people say nice things about socialism but we’re stuck living without electricity or water.”

Lecich joined hundreds on a main avenue of El Paraiso, chanting against government handouts and singing “all I want is for Nicolas to go,” while filing past police guards in riot gear.

While the government managed to crush weeks of violent protests in 2017 that left more than 120 people dead, now poorer areas of the capital are leading angry demonstrations over failed public services, food scarcity and rising prices. On Monday, rebel national guardsmen were detained in Caracas and accused of stealing weapons, prompting spontaneous protests in support of the officers in a working-class neighborhood about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the presidential palace.

Protests raged in the capital and the heartland on Tuesday night with residents taking to the streets in far-flung cities and towns long-considered devoted to the late Hugo Chavez and his so-called socialist revolution. Newspaper Correo del Caroni, based in Bolivar state, reported that a mob set fire to a Chavez monument in the industrial city of San Felix before toppling the statue and hanging the remains from a bridge. The Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory reported more than 60 protests through the evening.

Military Role

All eyes are on the military and security forces to see how much force they may use against protesters and whether at some point they’d consider giving up support for Maduro’s regime.

While Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the opposition-led National Assembly, has offered blanket amnesty to any military and government officials who help bring down the regime, his proposal needs to be attractive enough to lure the revolution’s disenchanted members or the top military brass to form a transitional government.

The National Assembly, which was undermined by Maduro after the opposition took its control three years ago, is being recognized outside Venezuela as the last vestige of a democratic institution. Guaido has led numerous town hall-type meetings over the past few weeks across the country and is giving dejected Venezuelans hope of change for the first time in months.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called for the country’s people to “make your voices heard” against Maduro, whom he called a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power. The video from the second-ranking official in the U.S. government was a powerful public backing for efforts to oust the Venezuelan leader.

Maduro, a 56-year-old disciple of Chavez, says the renewed push is nothing more than lackeys following orders from the U.S.. He blames the country’s deep economic crisis on sanctions and has vowed time and again to be working on a plan to right the economy which is expected to contract for a sixth consecutive year.

Government supporters decked out in red also gathered near downtown Caracas. “Pence should really think about what he’s doing with that attitude, because Venezuelans are battle-hardened people who will defend their sovereignty,” Richard Paredes, 39, said from Chacaito.

Venezuelans Take to the Streets With Maduro Under Pressure

While the government suspended most debt payments in late 2017, investors have taken note of the momentum and pushed up Venezuela’s dollar bonds to the highest in seven months. Guaido said in an interview on Tuesday that the opposition would indeed seek debt relief and international financing if it were to gain power.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.