HIGUEROTE, VENEZUELA (AFP) - "You can't ask human beings to be rational when they're hungry," says Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, warning the crisis-torn country risks erupting into violence.
The two-time presidential candidate is one of the leading forces behind a movement to force a referendum on sacking President Nicolas Maduro. They blame the leftist leader for a crushing recession, severe food shortages and mounting chaos.
Speaking ahead of critical nationwide protests on Thursday (Sept 1) - the first since the electoral authorities indicated a referendum could not be held this year, as the opposition demands - Mr Capriles, 44, told AFP there is unrest in the air.
Q: The opposition has struggled to rally large protests recently. Will there be big numbers Thursday?
A: It's going to be massive. But we don't think the government will change the same day. More important than the numbers is the path we're going to take in this new phase of the referendum fight.
If we all apply democratic pressure, if we push in the same direction, then given the country's social and economic situation, the government will have no choice but to accept a referendum.
Q: Do you think the situation could turn violent?
A: Don't underestimate the risk of a social explosion. It's in the air. The situation wasn't even this bad in 1989, when the "Caracazo" happened (rioting that claimed hundreds of lives after a gasoline price increase). The conditions are there. We don't want that to happen, but you can't ask human beings to be rational when they're hungry.
Q: There was much internal debate before the opposition coalition backed your strategy of pushing a recall referendum. Do you think it waited too long?
A: Individual agendas have caused us a lot of harm. But we've completed the steps to call a referendum right on schedule. There was an unnecessary internal debate, but the recall petition was filed on time, despite what the government says.
Q: Do you see the 2018 presidential election as an exit from the crisis? Will you run?
A: The only one setting his sights on 2018 is Maduro. Venezuelans in the street want change now. They know the country is deteriorating so fast that 2018 is too far away. It's unthinkable to talk about 2018 without some intermediary solution along the way.
As for me, I'm far from being obsessed with the presidency. Without a doubt, we want all this effort to bear fruit. I want my country to change. But to get there, we have to cross other bridges first.
Q: Is the opposition running out of options?
A: We have the most important thing: the people's support.