The Venezuelan opposition and government loyalists held rival demonstrations in Caracas on Saturday, as both sides prepared for what some fear could be a protracted power struggle.
The rallies unfolded as power and communications outages continued to hit Venezuela, intensifying the hardship of a country paralyzed by economic and political crisis. The blackouts heightened tension between the bitterly divided factions, which accused each other of being responsible for the collapse of the power grid.
“Hard times are ahead,” said opposition leader Juan Guaido, who addressed crowds with a loudspeaker after security forces dismantled a speakers’ stage that the opposition had erected. He said he planned to tour Venezuela to seek support and lay the groundwork for a massive rally in Caracas.
The 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly said he anticipated more government efforts to sideline and intimidate the opposition. However, President Nicolas Maduro’s government has not moved directly against Guaido since he returned to Venezuela from a Latin American tour Monday.
Guaido earlier speculated that Maduro was effectively ignoring him in an attempt to sap the energy of the opposition, whose hopes of ousting the government have so far been stymied.
But on Saturday, Maduro stepped up verbal attacks on Guaido, calling him “a clown and puppet” in a speech to supporters outside Miraflores, the presidential palace. He scoffed at Guaido’s claim in late January to be interim president of Venezuela, a declaration supported by the United States and about 50 other countries.
“Not a president, not anything,” said Maduro, who accused Guaido and his U.S. allies of sabotaging Venezuela’s Guri Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric stations and the cornerstone of Venezuela’s electrical grid.
He said authorities had restored 70% of power in Venezuela since what he called an “international cyberattack” late Thursday, but progress was lost on Saturday when “infiltrators” allegedly struck again.
The Venezuelan opposition and U.S. officials say Maduro’s attempts to pin blame on his political adversaries is absurd, and that government corruption and mismanagement over many years caused the blackout and wider deterioration of the economy.
In another blow to Venezuela’s infrastructure, an explosion occurred at a power station in the country’s Bolivar state on Saturday, according to local media. Video posted on social media showed fire and smoke billowing from the site. Venezuelan authorities have not commented.