Tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets Tuesday demanding the ouster of Nicolás Maduro in what is expected to be the beginning of a series of escalating protests and actions.
But even as opposition leader Juan Guaidó was trying to rally the crowds to march into downtown Caracas, they were dispersed by tear gas and the rush of security forces.
Tuesday marked the first large-scale demonstration that Guaidó has organized since returning from an international trip on Feb. 11 that took him to Colombia, Europe and the United States, and where he held a high-profile meeting with President Donald Trump.
Local media in Venezuela showed images of large opposition crowds in several cities, as state-run TV transmitted footage of a large pro-Maduro rally in downtown Caracas.
Oscar López, a member of Guaidó’s international team, said Tuesday’s march is the beginning of a larger global push to oust Maduro.
“Everything is coordinated, and it’s part of a strategy that will unfold in the coming days,” he said. “This starts today, but it will keep going. It will be followed by several other actions.
“But we have to have an organization inside [Venezuela] so that those outside can act,” he said. “We are going to see numerous, strong actions.”
Opposition lawmaker Juan Pablo Guanipa told VPI TV that the international community would be announcing new “actions” on March 16, but he declined to provide details. The White House has also said that it will exert “maximum pressure” this month as it seeks Maduro’s ouster.
The protest in the capital was slated to begin in the opposition stronghold of Chacao and end 4 1/2 miles away in downtown Caracas at the National Assembly. There, lawmakers were expected to sign off on what’s being called the “National Document of Struggle,” or Pliego Nacional de Conflicto, a laundry list of demands gathered from unions, political groups and civil society organizations.
Central to those demands are calls to unite the opposition and push for free and fair presidential elections.
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Surrounded by thousands of supporters, Guaidó addressed the crowds through a megaphone asking them not to be provoked.
“We’re not going to fall into the dictator’s trap and generate violence,” he said. “But it’s absolutely clear: We’re not scared and we’re united.”
At one point, Guaidó seemed to recognize a member of Maduro’s intelligence apparatus in the crowd, and as a mob surrounded the man, Guaidó snatched a cap off his head. That’s when tear gas began raining down and security forces punched in. It was unclear from video footage if the military was reacting to protect the man.
Later, Guaidó redirected the march to the nearby Alfredo Sadel Plaza, where lawmakers approved the Pliego Nacional de Conflicto in a symbolic ceremony.
“We knew the dictator’s plan and we were prepared,” Guaidó wrote. “We completed our objective: The entire country showed that it’s not scared.”
Maduro Fights Back
Despite a tanking economy, crushing inflation, rampant crime and international condemnation, Maduro, 57, has managed to cling to power with the backing of the nation’s military.
On Monday, after the opposition had announced the demonstration, Venezuela’s Armed Forces launched a “surprise” drill in five cities, including Caracas.
Remigio Ceballos Ichaso, the strategic operational commander of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, said the ongoing “intelligence and counter-intelligence” exercises are designed to root out “resistance.”
“Our goal is to find all external and internal threats to guarantee the defense of our nation,” he said.
On Tuesday, local media showed pictures of tanks and armored troop carriers on the streets of the capital.
In addition, thousands of Maduro supporters and pro-Maduro militia crowded the streets of downtown Caracas waving red flags and shouting slogans.
“The streets of Caracas ... are full of revolutionary citizens, who have come out to march with deep love for their country,” Maduro wrote. “It’s a clear sign to the world that Venezuela wants peace, stability and development without the interference of any empire.”
Guaidó, 36, who is also the president of the National Assembly, is considered the country’s legitimate president by the United States and more than 50 other nations. But he has little real power inside Venezuela, where he’s spent more than a year actively trying to push Maduro out of office and hold new elections.
Maduro, however, maintains that he has the right to rule through 2025 and accuses Guaidó of being a Washington puppet bent on trying to topple him.