Opponents of President Nicolas Maduro flooded Venezuela's capital on Thursday in one of the biggest mass protests against socialist rule for more than a decade. Dressed in white and chanting “this government will fall,” hundreds of thousands rallied across Caracas to demand a recall referendum against Maduro and decry a deep economic crisis in the oil rich country.
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition estimated at least 1 million people took part after protesters streamed into Caracas from the Amazon jungle to the western Andes. In the evening a massive deafening pot and pans banging confirmed the success of the protest
The government, which mounted its own, smaller counter-protest, did not give numbers for the turnout.
The opposition hoped its protests would prove they are the majority and heap pressure on Maduro and the national election board to allow a plebiscite on his rule, as allowed by the constitution half-way through a presidential term.
But with the election board dragging its feet over the process and the government swearing the referendum will not happen this year, the opposition has no way to force it no matter how many people it brings onto the streets.
The timing is all-important because if a plebiscite were held in 2017 and Maduro lost, his handpicked vice president would take over for the ruling Socialist Party, rather than triggering a new presidential election.
In power since Hugo Chavez's presidency from 1999, the populists have hit a low ebb as falling oil prices and a failing state-led economy have left the country in turmoil.
Triple-digit inflation, a third year of recession, shortages of basics, and long lines at shops have exasperated many of Venezuela's 30 million people. The frustration led to a resounding opposition win in a December legislative vote.
Maduro, 53, denounced what the opposition had billed as the Takeover of Caracas as a front for coup plans, akin to a short-lived 2002 putsch against his mentor Chavez, who died of cancer three years ago.
Maduro has failed to replicate his charismatic predecessor's popular appeal, and his ratings in opinion polls have halved to just over 20%.
We have stopped the coup today, the violent, fascist ambush, Maduro told supporters, saying detentions of activists in recent days had prevented violence. At least a dozen opposition campaigners were still in custody on Thursday, according to rights groups and the opposition.
Extra police and troops were positioned around Caracas, and there were roadblocks on most major routes into the capital from the provinces, with buses being blocked and traffic crawling.
Fearing violence, especially given 43 deaths around anti-Maduro protests in 2014, many businesses in the capital had stayed closed. Dozens of indigenous people marched hundreds of miles from their home state of Amazonas.
Swearing loyalty to Chavez's legacy and calling opposition leaders a wealthy elite intent on controlling Venezuela's oil, thousands of red-shirted government supporters also gathered for counter-rallies.
Maduro joined his supporters in the afternoon, singing on stage and pumping his fist in the air.
The opposition announced a timetable for further rallies in coming weeks.