500,000 protesters demand recall of Venezuela’s President Maduro, defying tear gas and arrest threats

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 10:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 9:28pm

Nothing was going to stop Nelson Rivas from joining the Taking Caracas demonstration on Thursday — not his wheelchair, not the 10km distance over uneven pavement, the whiffs of tear gas, nor the ominous threats of arrests from President Nicolas Maduro.

“I came to demand that the recall election take place according to the constitution,” said Rivas, 35. “Whatever your point of view, the condition of the country is the worst.”

Rivas took his place among the 500,000 or so who filled Francisco de Miranda Avenue and two other main streets in the capital, until they were brimming with protesters mostly dressed in white. Surrounding him were people carrying posters reading “No more socialism,” “Maduro Out,” and “Venezuela wants a recall.”

Marchers like Rivas said life in Venezuela has become a daily ordeal of standing in endless lines for food, for government services, for medical care.

The demonstration, aimed at speeding up a recall campaign against the 53-year-old president, was also a forceful repudiation of the leftist politics that are falling out of favour across Latin America.

At its peak in 2008, the left held the presidencies of eight of the 10 most populous countries in South and Central America. But those regimes have lost popularity as steep drops in commodity prices badly damaged their economies and left less money to spend on the poor.

Candidates from the right recently won the presidencies of Argentina and Peru, and just this week Dilma Rousseff was permanently ousted from the presidency in Brazil in an impeachment trial engineered by opponents from the right who now control the government.

But nowhere in Latin America has the rise and fall of the left been as dramatic as in Venezuela, a country that has been on the brink of collapse for the last several months.

Venezuela had its own brand of socialism, known as Chauvismo for Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leader who was elected president in 1998 in a rejection of free-market policies that were encouraged by the US but failed to deliver on their promise of wider prosperity.

Chavez fueled his social programs with revenue from the country’s vast oil supply. But falling oil prices and out-of-control spending threw the economy into turmoil as the leadership turned to more repressive measures to stifle growing discontent.

Maduro, who was vice president under Chavez, took over after he died in March 2013 and was narrowly elected to a six-year-term the next month.

His support plummeted as the economy continued to deteriorate to the point that analysts warned that Venezuela was at risk of becoming a failed state.

Maduro maintains some support. Government supporters also held a countermarch Thursday in a section of Caracas closer to the Miraflores presidential palace. Tens of thousands of chavistas took part.

But on Thursday, the legions of anti-Maduro protesters stretched for as far as the eye could see. They sang, chanted and made lots of noise — honking horns, blowing whistles, shaking rattles. The Venezuelan flag was everywhere — on hats, shirts, skirts, rendered in face paint. Many wore flags as capes.

The anti-Maduro forces also suggested the rally supporting Maduro was less than genuine, chanting, “I wasn’t paid to be here, I came because I wanted to.”

The protesters came from all over Venezuela, including indigenous community representatives from Amazonas state. Some marched bare-chested and in loincloths while carrying spears.

Some marchers held banners demanding the release of political prisoners such as former Caracas borough mayor and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been jailed since February 2014 on what he and his supporters say are trumped up charges.

Near Rivas, hairdresser Adela Hernandez, 56, said she had reached her limit of tolerance. “Everything is a disaster,” she said. “We’re tired of the insecurity, of scarcities, of inflation. We want a peaceful change, according to the constitution, that’s why we want a recall vote. It’s our right.”

If there was one sentiment that Rivas, Hernandez and other protesters expressed it was frustration — frustration over having water or electricity service cut off, frustration for hyperinflation that that destroys the value of their wages.

“We want the Venezuela we had 20 years ago, when there was food, security, medicine, when the money you made was enough to buy what you needed,” said Agustin Perez , a 30-year-old carpenter who lives in the poor east Caracas barrio El Atlantico.“Maduro can’t offer any of that.”