Venezuelans took to the streets in cities across the country Wednesday in an effort to pressure the authorities to call a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's future — and to do it this year.
The nationwide protests followed last week's massive mobilization of hundreds of thousands in the capital of Caracas.
While the numbers protesting this week did not compare, they did underline the geographical reach of dissatisfaction with the president as he struggles to find a solution to chronic shortages of basic goods, triple digit inflation, and a deep and painful recession.
"We are in the most critical phase of this struggle," opposition deputy Freddy Guevara told VICE News, referring to the political opposition's focus on forcing a recall vote.
The opposition, which collected the required number of signatures to kickstart the process earlier this year, alleges that the electoral authorities are dragging their feet moving through the stages required before the vote can be called in order to ensure it does not take place until after Maduro has completed half his six-year term on January 10.
Were Maduro to lose the recall vote before that date, it would automatically trigger a new presidential election. After that date, however, Maduro would simply be replaced by his vice president.
In the city of Zulia, the marchers walked behind a huge banner proclaiming "There is no future with Maduro." In Yaracuy, most wore white t-shirts, while in Carabobo the protest was filled with red, blue, and yellow Venezuelan flags.
The Associated Press reported that the anti-Maduro march in the city of Los Teques ran into pro-government demonstrators chanting "they shall not pass." The tension subsided after the opposition marchers sang the national anthem and dispersed.
There was no march in Caracas, but there were several small protests organized by activists and leaders of the political opposition. They have become far bolder in pushing for Maduro's exit since winning control of the congress last December.
"We want peace, that's what we are seeking for all Venezuelans. That's what our commander Chavez left us," government supporter Maria Luisa Castilla told Reuters in Los Teques. Maduro was handpicked to succeed Hugo Chávez, the man who started Venezuela's once much-lauded brand of socialism after he was elected in 1999 and who remained in power until he died of cancer in 2013.
But Maduro doesn't appear to have either the charisma that turned Chávez into a cult figure, or Chávez's political instincts. Venezuela's current president has also lacked the luck of sky-high oil prices to fund loyalty-securing subsidies for the poor.
Maduro's vulnerability was underlined this weekend when angry protesters on the island of Margarita turned up at a routine political event and chased him down the street banging pots and pans and yelling that they were hungry. A video of the incident went viral on social media.
Even so, many Venezuelans remain reluctant to throw their support behind elite opposition leaders. In addition, they are often also tied up with the daily grind of queuing for food to join the protests.
"As leaders, we can only go so far calling people out onto the streets," Guevara said, hinting that the marches may not be big enough to force an early vote. "In the end it depends on each Venezuelan deciding whether to participate or not in struggle to ensure a recall referendum in 2016."
Maduro dismissed the day's protests as a front for an attempted overthrow of the government, echoing the way he also described last week's huge march in Caracas.
"Peace will continue to triumph over the national and international efforts to mount a coup," Maduro said at a event in which he announced new expenditures for the national police. "Nobody will bring fascist violence to Venezuela."
Follow Eduardo Salazar on Twitter: @EduSalazarU
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