CARACAS, Venezuela: Venezuelans of every age, class and profession poured into the streets of the capital on Wednesday to demand that President Nicolas Maduro step down and to express their support for the young opposition leader who has declared himself interim president.
Dressed in suits, scrubs, and jeans, they waved the national flag, displayed signs, and chanted slogans. One disgusted vendor threw devalued national currency into the air.
Protesters who made an appearance were heeding a call from opposition leader Juan Guaido to stage mass demonstrations despite crackdowns on previous protests.
Here are some scenes from across Caracas:
No more dictatorship
Marching outside an office building on the eastern side of the city, Evelyn Melendez carried a red-and-white sign that read, “No more dictatorship,” and sang songs opposing Maduro.
Melendez said she lives in a working-class neighbourhood at the opposite end of the city, but she is too afraid to protest near her home, because in her neighbourhood she has already been beaten up by government supporters for canvassing for an opposition party.
“Things are very tough here,” said the 23-year-old Melendez, who wore a black T-shirt and baseball cap. “People are dying of hunger and over the lack of medicines. We hope that Maduro, the usurper, steps down from the presidency and stops causing harm to our people.”
Leyda Brito turned up at one of Wednesday’s protests wearing a red helmet with the number 647. It stands for the number of days that have passed since a group of pensioners was gassed by Venezuelan police during a protest in 2017.
Brito, 60, said she is struggling to live off her pension, which is roughly $10 a month. She said she was particularly frustrated by the Venezuelan government’s refusal to accept international humanitarian aid.
“Maduro is a tyrant,” Brito said. “We need a transition here and we need free elections.”
A woman who identified herself as Josefina arrived at one of the protest points in Caracas holding a thick wad of bolívar bills.
The notes were issued early last year by Venezuela’s Central Bank but hyperinflation has rendered them worthless. Josefina, who lives in a hillside slum and works as a street vendor, threw the green bills up in the air in protest, as she screamed out chants against Maduro’s government.
“This money is worth nothing,” said Josefina, who declined to give her last name for fear of repercussions from the government.
“Our military needs to man up and take the peoples’ side,” she said, referring to the military’s ongoing support of Maduro.
Josefina is hopeful that the economy will improve if Guaido becomes the country’s president. “Maduro has no support in my neighbourhood,” she said.
Wanted: International pressure
Construction company owner Pedro Cruz attended a walkout Wednesday with a half-dozen of his employees.
Carrying a large Venezuelan flag, Cruz said further repression of protests was likely in the upcoming days, but he is hopeful that the United States and more than two dozen other countries supporting Guaido will be able to put pressure on Maduro and force him to hold transparent elections.
“We have been under the occupation of Cuba for too long,” Cruz said, referring to the country’s close ties to the communist-run island. Cuba’s late president Fidel Castro traded favours and sustained a long friendship with the late socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“But we have to be optimistic,” Cruz added. “We have the support of many countries, and that could help us reach a solution.”
An ailing country
Wearing a white medical jacket over surgical scrubs, anaesthesiologist Hugo Rosillo led a team of doctors and nurses to the street to protest in front of a once-renowned children’s hospital that he said now feels more like a “storeroom for cadavers.”
Rosillo said he has some hope for the country given Guaido’s push to form a transitional government.
“We are facing the biggest crossroads that we have had since the revolution,” Rosillo said.
A change needs to come soon. Rosillo said medical shortages have prevented doctors from treating curable illnesses at the J.M. de los Rios Children’s Hospital, located just blocks from the Miraflores presidential palace.
He said medical personnel have been unable to provide basic antibiotics to treat common infections or relief to families whose children have cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
“And we the doctors are frustrated and immigrating to other countries,” he said.
An office worker who only wanted to be identified as Adriana because she feared possible repercussions from Maduro’s government arrived at a walkout with a sign that read, “You also have reasons” to protest. Adriana said she worked for a telecommunications company until December, but quit her job because her office was far from home, and public transportation has become too expensive and unreliable.
“We want the army to join us, and help us to remove this terrorist government,” she said. “I had to leave my son at home, because right now it is too dangerous for him to be in the streets. In my neighbourhood the military is forcibly recruiting teenagers.”
The darkest days
Retired diplomat Martin Mercado, 84, said this isn’t the first time he’s had to live through a dictatorship in Venezuela — but it’s the darkest. Venezuela endured the rule of the late military strongman Marcos Perez Jimenez in the 1950s, but Mercado says he doesn’t recall people in those days going hungry, lacking medicine or standing in long lines for basic goods as has happened under Maduro.
Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido declared during a huge opposition rally in Caracas that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro’s “dictatorship.”
Mercado says he’s afraid more blood will be spilt before Maduro will leave.
“This is no ordinary situation,” he said. “They are trying to recruit young people to become human shields. If something were to happen, clashes, many people would die. We hope that this will not happen.”
Mercado said he’s putting his trust in Guaido to lead Venezuela through a smooth transition.