(Bloomberg) — Juan Guaido’s supporters filled the streets of eastern Caracas on Tuesday, echoing his demand that the Venezuelan regime allow humanitarian aid into the hungry country.
People streamed down Francisco de Miranda Avenue, draping flags over their shoulders and holding signs that read “Stop the usurpation of power” as they headed toward the stage where Guaido was to speak.
Shops and restaurants remained open, but some of the main avenues in downtown Caracas, were closed near a plaza where Maduro was to appear in a counter-demonstration. A large truck blasted reggaeton with government propaganda.
It was the third protest in the past two weeks against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition protests have been the biggest since 2017, but unlike that violent year, the regime has largely allowed citizens to march. However, police have raided neighborhoods at night in search of opposition supporters. At least 35 people have died and more than 850 have been detained, according to human-rights groups including Provea and Penal Forum.
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Guaido, the president of the National Assembly who says he’s the rightful leader of Venezuela, has focused attention on emergency shipments of food stalled in the Colombian border town of Cucuta. Traditional aid groups have shunned the effort as a political ploy, but Guaido is counting on the U.S.-backed initiative to persuade his country’s military to recognize him and to create an opening for desperately needed relief.
The opposition march filled several blocks with thousands of people, and it seemed more like a celebration than a protest. Rap singers took selfies with demonstrators, who walked with small children or dogs. There were no hooded protesters or the confrontational mood seen in 2017, although many people shouted insults against Maduro.
“We’re moving forward. We have international support, and soon we’ll open a path for elections,” said Nathalie Torres, 37, a shopkeeper. She was marching from the working-class neighborhood of La Candelaria alongside three other women, all wearing white shirts and tricolor hats. At least one U.S. flag waved amid the Venezuelan colors.
Antonio Uribe, 83, a retired accounting professor, had been standing under a fiery sun since 9 a.m. to ensure he was in the front row to see Guaido speak. Uribe acknowledged that the crowds were thinner than in past marches but said people had not lost faith.
“Everyone is desperate for change,” he said. “There’s no water, no electricity and the hospitals don’t have medicines, but we are doing what we have to do.”
Many fewer people came to the regime’s march: Hundreds filled only a couple of blocks, despite the government buses that lined the streets to transport them. Many who marched were state employees.
While Venezuela faces deep shortages of necessities like antibiotics, first-aid supplies and baby formula, Maduro has portrayed the shipments as a pretext for an invasion, sent to humiliate him and undermine his presidency. About 40 miles from Puerto Santander, where the donations are stockpiled, his security forces are using shipping containers and a tractor-trailer to close off an international bridge.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said the first phase of a $20 million assistance will include food and hygiene kits, nutritional supplements and emergency medical kits. Lester Toledo, Guaido’s international coordinator for humanitarian aid, said Brazil had authorized the installation of a collection center in the border state of Roraima. Supplies will also come through a Caribbean island.
But Guaido’s now monthlong efforts to reach out to enlisted personnel and officers have yielded little in the way of public results: Only one general and two colonels — among thousands of top officers — have broken ranks in the past weeks. None control troops.
At the government rally in Caracas’s Morelos Square, attendees wore shirts and hats representing ministries and public institutions.
“The United States refuses to understand that we are free,” said Pedro Villegas, 25, a student leader in Maduro’s socialist PSUV party. “Guaido is a lackey; he has been imposed by a foreign agenda to steal power.”
(Updates in fifth paragraph with crowd size.)
–With assistance from Andrew Rosati.
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