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In Venezuela, clashes continue as protesters for and against Maduro fill the streets

In Venezuela, clashes continue as protesters for and against Maduro fill the streets
An anti-government protester throws Molotov cocktails during a clash with security forces near La Carlota military base in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, on Wednesday. (Matias Delacroix / AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuelans poured into the streets for continued mass demonstrations, and protesters again clashed with government forces Wednesday, a day after an opposition leader renewed calls for the military to abandon President Nicolas Maduro.

Supporters of Juan Guaido, the self-declared interim president, heeded his call for massive marches against Maduro’s government on May Day, a public holiday here.

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Standing in front of chanting supporters, the 35-year-old Guaido announced that on Thursday, public employees would begin work stoppages, eventually leading to a general strike meant to heighten pressure on Maduro to step down.

“In spite of the intimidation, we have never surrendered and we have said that this is an irreversible process,” Guaido told supporters in east Caracas’ El Marques district. “I have no doubt that 80% of the country wants a change.”

Later in the day, opposition protesters clashed with security forces near La Carlota military base, with tear gas and smoke from Molotov cocktails drifting through the air. Dozens were reported injured, including at least four journalists.

Maduro’s supporters also marched, wearing the red of his late patron Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian” revolution and carrying banners mocking President Trump, whose administration has enthusiastically supported Guaido. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the U.S. would send troops if Trump deems it necessary.

Despite the large-scale shows of support by both sides, little seemed to have changed in Venezuela's fundamental power calculus: Maduro is still in office and Guaido remains a self-proclaimed interim president with considerable public support and international backing but no territory or government ministries under his control.

“There is no other road but to keep on protesting,” said Victor Gonzalez, 38, a gardener who arrived early in the morning to take part in one of the anti-government activities across Caracas, the capital, which has weathered years of demonstrations and counterprotests.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a demonstration in Caracas on May 1, 2019.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a demonstration in Caracas on May 1, 2019. (Edilzon Gamez / Getty Images)

Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that was long among the wealthiest in Latin America, has endured a recent history of political tumult, economic chaos and large-scale emigration. Much of the population of 32 million is fatigued from the ongoing turmoil, which has spawned food shortages, rampant crime, periodic power blackouts and hyperinflation.

The opposition blames what it calls the incompetence and corruption of Maduro’s leadership for the country’s many woes. Maduro and his allies contend that a U.S. “economic war” — including recently enhanced sanctions against Caracas and its key oil sector — is fueling Venezuela’s disarray.

On Tuesday, Guaido declared that his movement was entering the “final phase” of its campaign to oust Maduro, who was reelected last year to a second six-year term in balloting that the opposition and outside observers called rigged.

Guaido was chosen as president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in January; he then labeled Maduro a “usurper” and said he was assuming the mantle of acting president. He has since been recognized as the country’s leader by about 50 nations, led by the United States.

But a day of running street battles Tuesday between the opposition and government forces failed to topple Maduro — who denounced the protests as part of a U.S.-backed “coup” meant to ensure Washington’s domination of Venezuela’s vast resources and its domestic and foreign policies.

A Maduro supporter holds a doll representing late leader Hugo Chavez as members of Venezuela's Bolivarian Militia attend a pro-government rally on May 1, 2019, in Caracas.
A Maduro supporter holds a doll representing late leader Hugo Chavez as members of Venezuela's Bolivarian Militia attend a pro-government rally on May 1, 2019, in Caracas. (Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)

The opposition also appeared to fail in its stated effort to flip the Venezuelan military, whose top brass has remained publicly supportive of Maduro’s socialist government.

On Wednesday, opposition advocates insisted the constant stream of demonstrations across the capital could only aid in turning military leaders and others to the Guaido government.

“The protests are important — they help to generate pressure,” said Domingo Perdigon, a businessman protesting in Caracas’ El Cafetal district. “The international community now recognizes us.”

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Perdigon, 69, added: “Besides, at my age, what else can I do? I am not going to take up a gun and confront someone on those terms, but of course I can march.”

Many younger people, he noted, have fled Venezuela, joining the exodus of more than 3 million who have emigrated in recent years. “All my kids already left,” Perdigon said.

Opposition demonstrators gather in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.
Opposition demonstrators gather in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. (Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)

Marching in east Caracas’ Las Mercedes district, Ruben Arias said he had not lost faith in the opposition leader.

“Guaido has given us new hope; without him we wouldn’t have achieved anything,” said the 46-year-old shop owner. “But he can’t do it by himself. That’s why we have to be out in the streets.”

Guaido “is not a messiah,” said Rosangela Peña, 53, a teacher protesting in the capital’s Bello Monte district. She said that she doubted Maduro would leave office soon and that Venezuelans had to keep up the pressure.

“We can’t get back in three months everything that has deteriorated in 20 years,” said Peña. “People want things to happen immediately, but without doing their part.”

On the capital’s Valle-Coche highway, pro-Maduro lawmakers and functionaries marched with others who defended Maduro as carrying on the legacy of Chavez. The late president, a longtime U.S. antagonist, emphasized using the country's oil revenue to reduce poverty and joblessness and boost Venezuela's long-marginalized underclass. Maduro was first elected president in 2013 after Chavez’s death.

The large turnout was a reminder that Maduro still has considerable popular support, especially among poor and working classes that have benefited from public investment in education, health and housing. The government also remains a key employer, and many fear losing their jobs should Maduro be forced out.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a banner mocking President Trump during a pro-government march on May 1, 2019, in Caracas.
Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hold a banner mocking President Trump during a pro-government march on May 1, 2019, in Caracas. (Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty Images)

"We have the right to live in peace in a tranquil country, and for that reason I came to defend the accomplishments of the Bolivarian revolution," said Carmen Rosas, 55, a public employee.

She denounced the opposition-led effort to oust Maduro as a coup attempt and said of the United States, "We will go out to defeat this empire that continues to try to seize our riches."

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The U.S. secretary of State told CNN on Tuesday that Maduro had been “ready” to abandon the country on a plane for Havana but that Russian authorities persuaded him to stay. Russia, a key backer of Maduro’s administration, denied the allegation, calling it part of Washington’s “information war” against the Venezuelan government.

On Wednesday, Pompeo said that Trump is willing to send troops to Venezuela but that the U.S. would prefer a peaceful transition of power, “where Maduro leaves and a new election is held.”

“Military action is possible,” Pompeo said on the Fox Business Network. “If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”

Venezuela is a close ally of Cuba and Nicaragua, all socialist nations that John Bolton, President Trump’s national security advisor, has dubbed the “troika of tyranny.”

The leaders of the three countries have accused the Trump administration of targeting them because of their refusal to accede to what they call Washington’s determination to dominate the region politically and economically. The Trump administration says it is seeking to foster democracy and “reject the forces of communism and socialism in this hemisphere,” as Bolton declared last month.

On Wednesday, Bolton repeated the Trump administration’s assertion that key members of Maduro’s government have negotiated with the opposition. Bolton said Maduro was “surrounded by scorpions in a bottle, and it’s only a matter of time.”

In a defiant appearance on state television late Tuesday, Maduro denied U.S. allegations that he was ready to abandon the country and called for a huge pro-government turnout on May 1 — which in Venezuela, as in many other countries, is seen as a day to pay homage to international labor.

On Wednesday, he posted a video on Twitter of marchers in red and spoke of the “joy overflowing on the streets of Caracas.”

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and Times staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City.

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