28 Oct, CARACAS – Venezuela’s opposition ratcheted up the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro at mass protests on Wednesday, announcing plans for a new march and general strike.
Opposition leaders called a 12-hour general strike for Friday and vowed to use their legislative majority to issue a declaration holding the elected socialist accountable for his handling of a severe economic crisis.
“We are going to notify Nicolas Maduro that the Venezuelan people declare that he has abandoned his post,” the speaker of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, said to cheers from hordes of protesters in Caracas.
He said his side would deliver that ruling in a march on November 3 to the presidential palace.
Jesus Torrealba, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), also drew thundrous applause when he announced the general strike.
“Everyone stay home,” he urged Venezuelans.
Opposition activists put the protest turnout at 1.2 million in the capital, the largest in a day of nationwide demos.
Maduro held his own rally with thousands of supporters outside the presidential palace.
The government maintains that since 1999 there has been no constitutional clause about dereliction of presidential duties, or about the legislature voting to launch what would amount to impeachment proceedings. The opposition disagrees.
Clashes broke out at protests in other parts of the country.
Three people were shot in the northwestern city of Maracaibo, said Alfredo Romero, head of Venezuelan rights group Foro Penal.
In all, at least 20 people were injured and 80 detained nationwide, the group said.
– ‘Coup’ claims –
Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves but has plunged into a deep recession due to falling crude prices — leading to shortages and ever louder calls for Maduro to go.
His opponents accuse him of a “coup” after authorities last week halted a bid for a referendum on removing him from power.
The president says it is the opposition that is trying to stage a coup.
Analysts have warned of a risk of violence in the volatile country.
Clashes at anti-government protests in 2014 left 43 people dead.
The opposition’s vow to march on the presidential palace next week raised the tone in the power struggle.
The palace was the scene of a short-lived opposition coup attempt in 2002 against Maduro’s late mentor, Hugo Chavez.
The head of the armed forces, Vladimir Padrino, who is also Maduro’s defense minister, declared “unconditional loyalty” to the president on Tuesday.
Maduro held a meeting of his National Defense Council on Wednesday.
In televised comments at the gathering, he called for “political dialogue and peace in Venezuela.”
The council comprises top officials including the defense and security ministers.
– Presidential trial demanded –
Maduro calls the economic crisis a capitalist conspiracy. The opposition blames his economic management.
A recent poll found that more than 75 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro.
On Tuesday, lawmakers voted to stage a “political and criminal trial” against him.
But the Supreme Court has overruled the National Assembly’s decisions ever since the opposition majority took control in January.
Maduro’s opponents say he controls the courts and the electoral authorities and has used them to block the referendum.
“The MUD has the political capital, but the government has the power,” political scientist Luis Salamanca told AFP.
– Opposition divisions –
The MUD says it will only agree to talks if the government respects the constitutional right to a referendum and frees its imprisoned activists and leaders, among other demands.
The opposition says the authorities have jailed more than 100 “political prisoners,” including Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the most hardline anti-Maduro movement.
But the MUD, which tends to the center-right, is a fractious coalition united mainly by shared hatred of Maduro.
Its divisions were clear at Wednesday’s marches.
Protesters heckled one top leader, Henrique Capriles, a state governor known as a moderate.
“Coward! Get off the stage!” shouted some. Others called for an immediate march on the presidential palace.
Capriles urged patience and strategy.
One protester, Lucia Russo, a 33-year-old graphic designer, left in disgust when leaders declared a one-day general strike. She thought it should have been indefinite.
“It’s not worth marching for nothing,” she said. (AFP)