Masses of protesters jammed the streets of Venezuela’s capital on Wednesday on the heels of a move by congress to open a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro, whose allies have blocked moves for a recall election.
Some schools and shops were shut as demonstrators crowded key points around Caracas to demand Maduro’s ouster.
Electoral authorities blocked a recall campaign against the deeply unpopular president last week, and the faceoff escalated on Tuesday when the opposition-led legislature voted to put Maduro on trial, accusing him of effectively staging a coup.
Artist Freddy Salazar was among the tens of thousands of protesters who filled major thoroughfares and plazas Wednesday, and shut down the city’s main highway.
”We have taken to the streets so that the whole world can see that we don’t support this corrupt regime,” he said. ”We are here to defend our country and our quality of life.”
Government supporters staged a much smaller protest in the heart of the city. Anti-government demonstrators have attempted to march to downtown a dozen times this year, but have been turned back by state security forces.
As the anti-Maduro protest wound down, opposition leaders called for a national strike on Friday, and then a march to the presidential palace in the heart of the city on Nov. 3. if the government continues to block the recall effort.
”Maduro has shown how scared he is that the people will express themselves,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
The opposition has not been allowed to protest in front of the presidential palace since a massive march there helped precipitate a short-lived coup against former President Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Protesters also rallied in other major Venezuelan cities to demand Maduro’s resignation in a nationwide show of support for the opposition leaders were calling ”the takeover of Venezuela.”
Local news media reported tear gassing and clashes with police in provincial capitals that left several wounded. Some protesters said they had been unable to get to Caracas Wednesday as the government shut down roads and metro stations.
Opposition legislators argued that Venezuela’s leader has effectively abandoned the presidency by neglecting his job. Several also questioned whether he was a dual Colombian national and therefore ineligible to hold Venezuela’s highest office – an old, unproven claim.
Despite the crisis gripping the country, the protest had a generally light, carnival atmosphere, with young people playing instruments, and sitting causally on the city’s main highway. One student protester dressed as Lady Justice, with a scale and white blindfold.
Victoria Rodriguez, 18, said she hopes to cast her first vote for the campaign to recall Maduro. A recent high school graduate, she said she feels like she’s living in an emptying country; 15 of her 25 classmates have already left since graduating in July.
She said she is frustrated that opposition leaders haven’t called for more dramatic action, like sleeping on the highway overnight or attempting to paralyze the capital for days at a time.
”People are tired of going to the streets and then going home,” she said. ”The opposition is letting the streets go cold. They are giving the government too much time to maneuver.”
Congress was expected to take up the issue of Maduro’s responsibility for the country’s worsening political and economic crisis Thursday. The result of that debate is unlikely to have much impact, however.
Unlike other countries in Latin America such as Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency in August, Venezuela’s National Assembly can’t impeach the president. That power lies with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro.
Even as tempers flare, the government and opposition have agreed on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis.
Talks sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments are set to begin Sunday in the Caribbean island of Margarita. Maduro, who met with Pope Francis privately at the Vatican on Monday, said he will travel to Margarita to personally launch the talks.
But the two sides have tried dialogue during previous crises, and the opposition has scant hope for a breakthrough. Although Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for food lines and triple-digit inflation the ruling party is in firm control of institutions like the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.
Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino, who many had seen as a potential brake on Maduro, spoke to the nation Tuesday dressed in camouflaged fatigues and surrounded by the top military command urging dialogue but calling on the opposition to respect the constitution.
That prompted an angry rebuke from National Assembly President Henry Ramos.
”How can he talk of respecting the constitution if he has become the foremost pimp of this regime’s violation of the constitution,” Ramos said, challenging security forces to arrest him when he attempts next week to travel to Washington to denounce Maduro.
On Wednesday, Maduro convened a meeting of the heads of all the country’s major institutions and said he lamented that Ramos had decided not to attend. State-run television lingered on the empty chair that had been reserved for the head of congress. Maduro went on to call for national unity.
”I’m very sorry that the congress president continues to show contempt for the constitution, and doesn’t want to enter into dialogue,” he said. ”I want everyone to behave reasonably and know that we are all Venezuelans.”