Opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who are unhappy with the slow pace of a recall petition will demonstrate Thursday in the capital Caracas in what organizers hope will be a massive show of support for political change.
Arrests of several opposition figures have been reported as Maduro tries to discourage turnout for the event that protest leaders have dubbed the “Conquest of Caracas.” Even as Maduro has threatened crack down on marchers, organizers said they expected hundreds of thousands of people from across the country
The protesters blame Maduro for triple digit inflation, scarcity of basic food items and medicine and rising violent crime. Maduro, who was elected to a six-year term in April 2013, has tried to portray his foes as coup proponents.
Among the opposition leaders reportedly detained this week is Yon Goicochea, the high-profile student activist who heads the Popular Will opposition political party. He was arrested Monday in the Prados del Este section of Caracas and has since been held incommunicado, his wife told reporters.
“I denounce the Popular Will party as the party of violence and coups,” Maduro said Tuesday during a public event in downtown Caracas. No matter if they “whine, cry or scream, they will be arrested.”
Jesus Torrealba, a director of the Unity Table coalition of anti-Maduro parties pushing the recall measure, said the march will be peaceful and remain far from the Miraflores presidential palace.
“When we go to Miraflores, it will be to stay, with the votes of the people,” Torrealba told a television interviewer on Tuesday.
Shortly after opposition parties took control of the National Assembly in January, leaders launched a presidential recall campaign that gathered 1.8 million signatures, which were submitted to the electoral commission in March. But Maduro controls the commission, which has moved slowly.
Although it confirmed that enough signatures were collected to validate the process, the commission has set no firm timeline for the process. Opposition officials are concerned that the recall effort may be dismissed for not passing various milestones before certain deadlines.
The march is expected to be the biggest in turnout since February 2014, when nationwide protests turned violent and left 45 dead and hundreds injured.
Daniel Ceballos, the former mayor of San Cristobal in western Tachira state who was serving a sentence of house arrest for inciting violence in the aftermath of those protests, was reportedly taken from his home Saturday and moved to a prison in Guarico state.
Also reported detained was Carlos Melo, a board member of the Advanced Progressive party. Lara state Gov. Henri Falcon, a Maduro opponent, said that “comrade” Melo is being held in police intelligence headquarters in Caracas.
Nestor Reverol, the minister of interior, justice and peace, said on Wednesday that Ceballos was arrested because he was planning to flee the country and that Melo and Goicochea were implicated in the plan. None of the accused has been allowed to speak publicly since their arrests.
“Now we will show a firm hand, with the constitution on our side,” Maduro said Tuesday.
Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate who lost to Maduro in 2013 and is now Miranda state governor, described the arrests as “desperation” moves by the government.
“They can arrest all the political leaders, but that won’t stop people from taking to the streets on Sept. 1,” he said. “They can’t avoid the fact that we Venezuelans continue to seek respect for the constitution and that there be a recall vote.”
After National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup said the opposition would launch drones to fly over the march to record possible abuses of protesters by the government, Maduro declared the use of drones to be illegal through Sept. 6.
Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota respectively.