Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Caracas yesterday to demand that the government allow a referendum on whether the deeply unpopular President Maduro should be forced to step down.
Protesters crowded the Venezuelan capital in support of the recall referendum, which the Socialist government has tried to block at every stage.
Mr Maduro’s supporters held their own rally across the city as a show of strength, after police arrested opposition activists and accused them of plotting to overthrow the government.
Mr Maduro had warned that he would arrest anyone who tried to incite violence at the street protests, and both rallies kicked off in a festive atmosphere, with Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, urging his followers to keep the march — dubbed “the taking of Caracas” — as peaceful as possible.
The protesters, mostly wearing white shirts, chanted: “It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall, the government is going to fall,” and carried Venezuelan flags and placards that read: “We are 30 million reasons to revoke him.”
A small group of protesters, some wearing masks and throwing rocks, squared off against riot police as the rally was ending. Police used tear gas to disperse them.
The opposition, which took control of parliament in a landslide election last December, had called on people to come from across the country to vent their anger at chronic shortages of food and medicine, inflation estimated to be as high as 700 per cent and crime levels that outstrip those of any country in the world outside of a war zone. Last night it estimated that between 950,000 and 1.1 million turned out.
Mr Capriles, the moderate governor of Miranda state, said that the huge turnout would bolster opposition demands for a referendum on whether Mr Maduro should step down. The opposition completed the first stage of the process in May, when it collected almost ten times the 200,000 signatures needed to push the process to the second stage, which requires four million signatures — 20 per cent of the population — to be collected in a three-day window set by the government.
It is in the Socialist government’s interest, however, to delay the process because, by law, if the referendum happens before January 10 and Mr Maduro has to step down, the country will hold a general election, which the opposition is certain to win. If the referendum takes place after that date, Mr Maduro would be replaced by his vice-president, leaving the Socialists in power.
To that end, the government-dominated electoral commission tried to slow down the first stage, accusing the opposition of fraud, necessitating a lengthy verification of signatures on the petition. It has yet to set a date for the second round.
“This first of September starts a new step in the collection of 20 per cent of signatures,” Mr Capriles told the crowds. “We are not asking Maduro to resign, that is his decision. We are asking for a date for the collection of the 20 per cent of signatures; we have been asking for this electoral process for seven months.”
The atmosphere at Plaza Altamira, in the western part of the city, was party-like as huge crowds gathered. Carlos Rasquin, an anti-government protester, said: “This is us taking back democracy through democracy. Our country is democratic even if our government is not.”
The mood was in marked contrast to the war-like portrayal of the march by Mr Maduro in recent days. “If they’re coming with coups, ambushes and political violence, the revolution will provide an uncommon and overwhelming response,” he told supporters a day earlier. In a controversial ruling last year, Venezuelan security forces were authorised to shoot to kill if they felt their lives to be in danger at protests.
The two-stage referendum
The recall referendum is a two-stage process. In the first stage, the opposition has to gather signatures from 1 per cent of the population in support of the referendum. Stage two requires signatures from 20 per cent of the population.
The referendum can be held after the president’s first three years in power, which allowed the opposition to start the process in April. If the referendum takes place this year, and he is voted out of office, an election will be held.
If it takes place after January 10, as the president heads into his final two years, his vice-president would take over and the Socialists would retain power.