President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and America-supported opposition leader Juan Guaido competed for the support of their people on Saturday as they held rallies in the capital Caracas.
Guaido said he was launching what he promised will be a “definitive” escalation of pressure to force Maduro from office. Addressing a giant anti-government rally in Caracas, Guaido — whose claim to be interim president is supported by around 50 nations — kicked off what he called “Operation Liberty.”
“Everyone to the streets, let’s start the final phase of the end of the usurpation!” he told supporters, speaking from the back of a pickup truck.
A pro-Maduro counter-demonstration, with supporters dressed in red, also drew a large crowd that gathered at the Miraflores presidential palace.
“Together, permanently mobilized, let’s keep defending national peace and independence; no more interference!” Maduro tweeted.
Guaido called for a huge nationwide turnout on Wednesday, and urged his followers to redouble their efforts to maintain pressure in the streets.
“The greatest escalation of pressure we have seen in our history” has begun, Guaido said.
The call comes amid massive blackouts and the collapse of water supplies affecting the nation, further exacerbated a growing political crisis.
The United States meanwhile has stiffened its economic sanctions against Maduro, and one top US official warned Venezuela’s military that it must protect the rights of peaceful protesters.
At the rally, Guaido also warned Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel that the supply of subsidized Venezuelan oil to the Caribbean communist island nation was over.
Venezuela has been sending cheap oil to Cuba in exchange for labour from Cuban doctors and teachers, but Guaido said the oil was actually financing a Cuban intelligence group known as G2 that was cracking down on Maduro opponents in the Venezuelan military.
“The exploitation of Venezuelan oil is over, so Mr Diaz-Canel… Venezuelan oil will not be used to submit and investigate our military officials” through the G2, he told the crowd.
Pro-Guaido protests drew thousands in rallies across the country on Saturday.
Maduro called upon Mexico and Uruguay to relaunch their proposal for dialogue to resolve the crisis without foreign intervention. The two countries had first introduced that idea in January.
Two opposition deputies were detained at an anti-government demo in the western city of Maracaibo, but a few hours later Guaido announced that the two had been released.
Elimar Diaz, a lawmaker who marched in Maracaibo, told AFP the protest there had encountered “brutal repression,” including tear gas canisters dropped from helicopters, the use of National Guard armored vehicles and attacks by members of the pro-government militia, known as “colectivos.”
Diaz said people in Maracaibo had gone “days without electricity” amid “inhumane rationing” by the government.
Maduro has blamed US-backed sabotage for the massive blackouts that have deprived millions of power. The opposition blames a failure to maintain critical infrastructure.
Facing intense pressure at home and abroad, the Maduro government has sought to weaken Guaido.
The government has stripped his parliamentary immunity, authorized his prosecution for proclaiming himself acting president, and banned him from holding public office for 15 years.
Guaido said earlier this week he feared that he could be abducted by government agents.
Speaking to the pro-government Constitutional Assembly, Maduro’s top lieutenant Diosdado Cabello slammed the US point man on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, as an “assassin.”
“It is Abrams who should be in prison, condemned in the United States for genocide in Central America,” said Cabello, referring to the US official’s controversial role in the Central American conflicts of the 1980s.
Washington meanwhile kept up the international pressure on Maduro to step down.