Caracas, Venezuela – Supporters and opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are once again pouring into the streets of Caracas, the latest rival rallies to be held in the capital amid a protracted political crisis and rising anger over blackouts that have left millions without electricity and water.
Juan Guaido, the self-proclaimed interim president and leader of the National Assembly, has asked his supporters not to get used to living in “darkness” while blaming high-level corruption and mismanagement under Maduro for the electricity outages.
Guaido has also held the government responsible for an exodus of people from the oil-rich country – according to the United Nations estimates, around three million Venezuelans have left since 2015.
“Look around you, we are not alone,” Guaido told the pro-opposition rally in Caracas on Saturday. “Venezuela, look around, … people are here, we are here fighting for our rights.”
Earlier, opposition supporterLobelai Sandoval said she was marching “in the name” of her son.
“A son that this country has taken away from me, as he had to leave,” she said, dressed in the colours of the Venezuelan flag.
“I am alone, thanks to this corrupted government that has left us in the situation we are today, and like me, there are many other mothers, many other families have split,” Sandoval added.
“For how much longer can we carry on like this? We need to go out, we have to do it.”
‘Can’t let others take our country’
Across the city, government supporters were also taking to the streets for a “march in defence of peace”, as Maduro labelled it.
The president, who has been in power since 2013 after the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez, accuses the United Statesand its allies in Venezuela of trying to force a coup against him, as well as for sabotaging the state.
“I’m going out to defend the future of my children and grandchildren,” Elizabeth Ruiz, a Maduro supporter, said.
“No other nation can interfere in our affairs,” she added.
“We can’t let others take away our country – why would we allow them? This is the inheritance that our beloved President Chavez left.”
The rival displays came days after Guaido said he feared abduction by the government after the Constituent Assembly on Tuesday stripped him of his parliamentary immunity and authorised the country’s top court to prosecute him for proclaiming himself president.
The US, which has openly backed Guaido, has called for a UN Security Council meeting next week to discuss Venezuela’s “humanitarian crisis”.
On Friday, the US announced new sanctions on 34 vessels owned or operated by Venezuelan state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela ( PDVSA), and on two companies and a vessel that delivered oil to Cuba in February and March.
“The United States will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech in Houston, Texas.
“Venezuela’s oil belongs to the Venezuelan people,” he added.
The sanctions were the latest by the US as it tries to choke off revenue for Maduro’s government, which enjoys the backing of China and Russia.
Experts, however, have warned against the effect of these moves and urged for dialogue.
“We must push for agreements that can prevent this train crash,” Luis Vicente Leon, an economist and analyst, said, referring to the deepening rivalry between Venezuela’s government and opposition.
“If this is not resolved in a different way, this could end pulverising what remains of the country, businesses and infrastructure,” he added.
‘This crisis is severe’
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the economy of Venezuela is estimated to have shrunk by more than 30 percent between 2013 and 2017. Last year, it is believed to have declined by 18 percent.
The Washington-based institution has also said Venezuela’s inflation rate could reach 10 million percent by the second half of this year, exacerbating the country’s economic crisis.
The collapse has made food and medicine unaffordable for most citizens, causing widespread malnutrition, especially among children, and a rise in preventable diseases.
On top of that, blackouts have knocked out water supplies and affected transport and communications.
“No matter how hard they try, Venezuelan authorities cannot hide the reality on the ground,” said Shannon Doocy, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University, who conducted research at Venezuela’s border.
“Venezuela’s health system is in utter collapse, which, combined with widespread food shortages, is piling suffering upon suffering and putting even more Venezuelans at risk. We need UN leadership to help end this severe crisis and save lives.”
Last month, the International Federation of Red Cross announced it was planning to increase operations in Venezuela to provide aid to 650,000 people. However, a UN report leaked to the media at the same time said that the number of people in need was close to seven million.
“This crisis is severe, we don’t have the necessary tools,” Vietnam Veras, a doctor in Caracas, said
“The state is not following through its obligation with the health system,” he added.
“They say they don’t have the resources – then, they should ask for help, make a call to the UN and do not let this chaos drag.”