Nothing was going to stop Nelson Rivas from joining the Taking Caracas demonstration on Thursday — not his wheelchair, not the six-mile distance over uneven pavement, not the whiffs of tear gas, not the ominous threats of arrests from President Nicolas Maduro.
“I came to demand that the recall election take place according to the constitution,” said Rivas, 35. “Whatever your point of view, the condition of the country is the worst.”
Rivas took his place in the ranks that filled Francisco de Miranda Avenue, one of three main streets in the capital brimming with thousands and thousands of protesters, mostly dressed in white. Surrounding him were people carrying posters reading “No more socialism,” “Maduro Out,” and “Venezuela wants a recall.”
Marchers such as Rivas said life in Venezuela has become a daily ordeal of standing in endless lines for food, for government services, for medical care.
The demonstration, aimed at speeding up a recall campaign against the 53-year-old president, was also a forceful repudiation of the leftist politics that are falling out of favor across Latin America.
At its peak in 2008, the left held the presidencies of eight of the 10 most populous countries in South and Central America. But those regimes have lost popularity as steep drops in commodity prices badly damaged their economies and left less money to spend on the poor.
Candidates from the right recently won the presidencies of Argentina and Peru, and just this week, Dilma Rousseff was permanently ousted from the presidency in Brazil in an impeachment trial engineered by opponents from the right who now control the government.
But nowhere in Latin America has the rise and fall of the left been as dramatic as in Venezuela, a country that has been on the brink of collapse for the last several months.
Venezuela had its own brand of socialism, known as Chauvismo for Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leader who was elected president in 1998 in a rejection of free-market policies that were encouraged by the United States but failed to deliver on their promise of wider prosperity.
Chavez fueled his social programs with revenue from the country’s vast oil supply. But falling oil prices and out-of-control spending threw the economy into turmoil as the leadership turned to more repressive measures to stifle growing discontent.
Maduro, who was vice president under Chavez, took over after he died in March 2013 and was narrowly elected to a six-year term the next month.
His support plummeted as the economy continued to deteriorate to the point that analysts warned that Venezuela was at risk of becoming a failed state.
Maduro maintains some support. Government supporters also held a counter-march Thursday in a section of Caracas closer to the Miraflores presidential palace. Tens of thousands of chavistas took part.
But on Thursday, the legions of anti-Maduro protesters stretched for as far as the eye could see. Estimates put the crowds at 500,000. They sang, chanted and made lots of noise — honking horns, blowing whistles, shaking rattles. The Venezuelan flag was everywhere — on hats, shirts, skirts, rendered in face paint. Many wore flags as capes.
The anti-Maduro forces also suggested the rally supporting Maduro was less than genuine, chanting: “I wasn’t paid to be here, I came because I wanted to.”
The protesters came from all over Venezuela, including indigenous community representatives from Amazonas state. Some marched bare-chested and in loincloths while carrying spears.
Some marchers held banners demanding the release of political prisoners such as former Caracas borough mayor and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been jailed since February 2014 on what he and his supporters say are trumped-up charges.
Near Nelson Rivas, hairdresser Adela Hernandez, 56, said she had reached her limit of tolerance. “Everything is a disaster,” she said. “We’re tired of the insecurity, of scarcities, of inflation. We want a peaceful change, according to the constitution, that’s why we want a recall vote. It’s our right.”
If there was one sentiment that Rivas, Hernandez and other protesters expressed, it was frustration — frustration over having water or electricity service cut off, frustration for hyperinflation that destroys the value of their wages.
Those in the opposition who thought winning a majority of seats in the National Assembly in last year's elections would lead to changes also are feeling frustration. The Maduro-controlled Supreme Court has declared 24 laws passed by the body to be illegal.
Bordering Miranda and other main streets occupied by the masses of protesters were several cordons of riot police. They used tear gas to disperse some protesters who mounted one of Caracas’ freeways, but otherwise there were no violent incidents or confrontations reported.
“We want the Venezuela we had 20 years ago, when there was food, security, medicine, when the money you made was enough to buy what you needed,” said Agustín Perez , a 30-year-old carpenter who lives in the poor east Caracas barrio El Atlantico.
“Maduro can’t offer any of that,” said Perez, who walked five miles to the protest after Maduro closed down the subways close to the protest route to discourage attendance.
Others protested the arrests this week of several other opposition leaders, including the detention Monday of Yon Goicoechea, a former student leader who now heads the Popular Will Party. His wife told reporters the leader has been held incommunicado since his arrest and that she does not know where he is or whether he is alive or dead.
Other opposition leaders participating in the march included Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, national Assemblyman Julio Borges and Maria Corina Machado, the fierce assemblywoman who was physically attacked on the floor of the national legislature, while the chamber’s president, Diosdado Cabello, stood by smiling.
“Recall now. The government can’t stop it. Discontent is very high,” said Jesús Belisario, a 38-year old laborer who came from San Cristobal in western Tachira state to protest.
On Sept. 14, protests will be convened at all the state capitals to demand that the national electoral council convene the recall vote. While the council has verified that enough signatures were collected earlier this year to initiate the process, it has not set a firm time line for the next phase, which opponents claim is a delaying tactic designed to make the opposition miss certain deadlines.
Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas. Special correspondent Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia.
3:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.