CARACAS, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Opposition supporters headed to rallies around Venezuela on Wednesday against unpopular socialist President Nicolas Maduro, whom they accuse of turning into a dictator by preventing a plebiscite to remove him.
The oil-rich South American country is in the throes of a punishing recession that has many poor families skipping meals or surviving on starches amid scarce food and triple-digit inflation.
The opposition coalition says Maduro must go before the situation worsens, but Venezuela’s electoral authorities last week canceled a planned signature drive to hold a recall referendum against him, citing fraud.
An outraged opposition said Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, had crossed the line.
It held a march led by women dressed in white on Saturday, launched a political trial against him in Congress on Tuesday, and organized marches called the “Takeover of Venezuela” for Wednesday.
“We are in the final stage of this democratic fight,” said jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in tweets from his prison cell posted by his family. “Let the streets and highways send a message to the repression and censorship of this dictatorship.”
Some opposition supporters reported on social media that roadblocks by security forces were delaying their entry into Caracas, where many businesses were staying shut and some parents were keeping children away from school.
“I am marching today for my future, but also for theirs,” said teacher Mariana Hurtado, dressed in white and accompanied by her two teenage children, all carrying Venezuelan flags.
“We’ve had two decades of a failed experiment. How much longer? ... Get out, leave us in peace. You’ve stolen and destroyed our beautiful country enough.”
“THE REVOLUTION WILL CONTINUE!”
Maduro, elected to replace late leader Hugo Chavez after his death three years ago, counters it is in fact the opposition vying for a coup beneath the veneer of peaceful protests.
Chavez was briefly toppled in a 2002 putsch, where some of the current opposition leaders played key roles.
“Some want to see Venezuela full of violence and divided,” a red-shirted Maduro told cheering supporters at a rally on Tuesday, where he vowed to stand firm. “They won’t return! The revolution will continue!” he said, pumping his fist.
Opposition protests two years ago, championed by Lopez, led to 43 deaths, including security officials and both government and opposition supporters. As a result, some Venezuelans are wary of demonstrations or see them as futile.
And Venezuela’s poor have to prioritize the all-consuming task of finding affordable food, while many remain skeptical of the opposition, which has a reputation for elitism and whose internal squabbles have for years been a boon for “Chavismo.”
Still, the opposition estimates 1 million anti-government protesters flooded Caracas early last month in the biggest demonstration for over a decade, and was hoping for a similar or better turnout across Venezuela on Wednesday.
Maduro said he was convening a special Committee for the Defense of the Nation at the presidential palace on Wednesday, to analyze the National Assembly’s actions against him and a tentatively scheduled dialog with the opposition this weekend.
National Assembly head Henry Ramos, a veteran politician who swaps insults with Maduro near-daily, was invited.