Tensions rising in Venezuela ahead of rival protests

View of a vehicle burned down on a street where there were protests in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan 22, 2019.
View of a vehicle burned down on a street where there were protests in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan 22, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CARACAS (AFP) - Opposition supporters and regime loyalists in Venezuela are set to hold competing mass street rallies on Wednesday (Jan 23), two days after a failed mutiny by soldiers hoping to spark a movement that would overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.

"We have a historic appointment with our country, with the future of our children," said National Assembly president Juan Guaido, the driving force behind the opposition protest.

"Venezuelan military, tomorrow we have a historic appointment with the people," he said on Tuesday during a session of the legislature, which the regime has stripped of power.

Mr Guaido, 35, called for the demonstration earlier this month after Mr Maduro was sworn in for a second term of office over objections from both the opposition and large sections of the international community.

Mr Maduro earned his second term by winning snap elections in May that were boycotted by the opposition and dismissed as a fraud by the European Union, the United States and many Latin American countries.

The opposition protest aims to support Mr Guaido's bid to set up a transitional government ahead of new elections.

He received support on Tuesday from US Vice-President Mike Pence, whose country has sanctioned top regime figures.

Mr Pence wrote on Twitter: "As the good people of Venezuela make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say: estamos con ustedes. We are with you."


Mr Maduro responded by accusing the US, through Mr Pence, of trying to engineer a coup.


Venezuela's government ominously predicted there would be violence against opposition protesters, although claiming it would be self-inflicted in a bid to portray the regime as brutal.

Venezuela's Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez even said Monday's mutiny, in which soldiers took over a command post in the north of Caracas and called on the public to head to the streets in repudiation of Mr Maduro, was merely a ruse to steal weapons.

US Senator Marco Rubio warned of manipulation by Venezuela's intelligence service, urging them to "reconsider the plan they have for tomorrow before it's too late".


Monday's mutiny was quickly put down. Twenty-seven soldiers were arrested and Mr Rodriguez claimed they confessed to handing out weapons to opposition activists "so they can carry out acts of violence, (cause) injuries and deaths during the protest".

The mutiny sparked at least 30 small protests in different parts of Caracas, according to a non-governmental organisation monitoring social conflict. Police used tear gas against some of the demonstrators.

"We leave the violence to others," Mr Guaido said.

"Tomorrow is about reuniting as a people to tell the world about the steps we're going to take to end the usurpation, to achieve a transitional government and a free election."

Although Mr Guaido insists he has the backing of the Constitution in his bid to overthrow Mr Maduro, the National Assembly has been impotent since 2017 when the Supreme Court, dominated by regime loyalists, stripped it of all its powers.

Mr Guaido has acknowledged as much. He says he needs the help of the people and the military to achieve his aims.

Analysts say the opposition is not united and faces huge challenges. The scale of its public support will be seen on Wednesday, symbolic because on that day in 1958, the military dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez fell.


In calling on government supporters to take part in a counter-rally, Mr Maduro's right-hand man Diosdado Cabello suggested the regime would hold fast.

"The only transition is to socialism," he said.

These will be the first mass street rallies since 125 people died during protests between April and July 2017.

The biggest stumbling block to potential opposition success is the military high command's loyalty to Mr Maduro.

Mr Guaido has tried to break that bond by offering an amnesty to any personnel in the 365,000-strong military who disavow the president. There are also 1.6 million civilian militiamen.

Monday's mutiny gave a hint that there are divisions in the armed forces, and the Citizen Control non-governmental organisation says around 180 soldiers were arrested in 2018 for conspiring against the government, while 4,000 more deserted the National Guard.

Public discord was provoked by Venezuela's worsening economic crisis. Poverty has been on the increase as people face shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

About 2.3 million people have fled the crisis since 2015, according to the United Nations, while those left behind face failing public services including water, electricity and transport.

A crash in the price of crude in 2014 was the catalyst for Venezuela's meltdown, and oil production has declined to barely a third of the level a decade ago.

At the same time, inflation has soared, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will reach 10 million per cent this year.