Guaido calls for march on Caracas as crippling blackout drags on

Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaking at a rally in Caracas on Saturday. A massive blackout since Thursday has crippled Venezuela and fuelled a political stand-off between Mr Guaido and embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who is clinging to power.
Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaking at a rally in Caracas on Saturday. A massive blackout since Thursday has crippled Venezuela and fuelled a political stand-off between Mr Guaido and embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who is clinging to power.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CARACAS • Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido called for a nationwide march on Caracas to crank up the pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro, as the country endured its third night largely without power.

The massive blackout crippling the oil-rich but economically troubled South American nation has fuelled the political stand-off between Mr Guaido, who is recognised as Venezuela's leader by more than 50 countries, and Mr Maduro, who is clinging to power.

No national data was available about the impact of the power outage, but a non-governmental organisation said at least 15 patients with advanced kidney disease died after they stopped receiving dialysis treatments in darkened hospitals.

As night fell on Saturday, power across much of the country - which first went off on Thursday - was still not restored. Businesses remained shut, hospitals struggled to operate and public transport barely functioned.

The 35-year-old Mr Guaido, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, earlier told thousands of supporters that he would soon embark on a nationwide listening tour before leading a march on the capital.

"Once we've finished the tour, the organisation in every state, we'll announce the date when all together, we'll come to Caracas," Mr Guaido said, a megaphone in his hand, as he stood on the roof of a pickup truck.

Security forces had prevented the opposition from setting up a stage at their original protest site, arresting three people.

"Miraflores, Miraflores!" chanted Mr Guaido's supporters in response - a reference to the presidential palace, currently occupied by Mr Maduro.

Mr Guaido, who proclaimed himself president of the country of 30 million people in January and says Mr Maduro's May re-election was illegitimate, wants new polls.

Mr Guaido threatened to authorise an outside military intervention "when the time comes", pointing to the Constitution, which authorises "the use of a Venezuelan military mission abroad, or foreigners inside the country".

"All the options are on the table," he said, borrowing a phrase from US President Donald Trump.

Mr Maduro also rallied his supporters. Wearing red, they protested against "imperialism" at a march that marked four years since the United States branded Venezuela a "threat" to its security and imposed sanctions.

"Today, more than ever, we're anti-imperialists. We will never surrender!" Mr Maduro wrote on Twitter.

He said almost 70 per cent of power had been restored by mid-day, when a "cyber attack" was reported at a major power plant.

"That disturbed and undid everything we had achieved," he said.

Both the pro-Guaido and the pro-Maduro rallies ended without major incident.

The blackout is one of the worst and longest in recent memory in Venezuela, which is already suffering from shortages of food and medicine due to the overarching economic crisis.

Problems have been exacerbated by hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million per cent this year.

An estimated 2.7 million people have left the country since 2015.

Ms Francisca Rojas, a 62-year-old retiree living in Caracas, said: "I've spent three nights in a lot of distress. I'm very anxious because the situation is not getting resolved, the little food that we have in the fridge is going to spoil."

"How long are we going to put up with this?"

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2019, with the headline 'Guaido calls for march on Caracas as crippling blackout drags on'. Print Edition | Subscribe