CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan opposition supporters poured into the streets Saturday, heeding a call from their leaders to stage another day of peaceful protests against President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian rule in hopes of capitalizing on international pressure to force him from power.
In another boost for the opposition, a top air force official and a man identifying himself as a Venezuelan ambassador released separate videos breaking with Maduro and pledging allegiance to Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader. They were two of the highest-level defections yet in the country’s growing political crisis.
“Ninety percent of the armed forces do not support Nicolás Maduro,” said Division Gen. Francisco Esteban Yánez Rodríguez, the air force official. “I ask my comrades in arms to not turn their backs on the people of Venezuela, do not repress anymore.”
In another video released in the evening, a man identifying himself as Jonathan Velasco, the Venezuelan ambassador to Iraq, said Guaidó “stood on the right side of history” and was the country’s rightful leader.
The cracks in Maduro’s armor have started to add up.
U.S. officials said they would no longer pay his government for oil sales in the United States, a principal source of Maduro’s hard currency.
The United States and more than two dozen other countries no longer recognize him as Venezuela’s president. And Guaidó has declared himself the country’s legitimate leader, calling on the armed forces to join him in toppling Maduro.
While Venezuela’s top military brass has come out in support of Maduro, Yánez joined a growing list of defectors — including the military attaché of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington — who have urged the armed forces to align with the opposition.
Few times in Venezuela’s recent history has so much appeared to be hanging on a protest movement — and its ability to get the military, Venezuela’s chief power broker, to side with it.
“This is our best political opportunity,” said Margarita Lopez Maya, a retired political scientist in Caracas, the capital, who has spent decades studying the strongmen of the country’s past and who headed out Saturday to join the crowds. “Right now, it’s the moment of the citizens.”
Throngs of demonstrators converged on Avenida Principal de las Mercedes, a wide boulevard in a middle-class Caracas neighborhood. Whistles sounded and drivers beeped their horns, with no evident sign of authorities’ cracking down.
Many carried yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags and banners supporting democracy. One man knelt in prayer before a sign that read, “This struggle is for those who have fallen and for our Fatherland.”
Francisco Rodríguez, an economist at Torino Capital, said the firm had estimated turnout at more than 800,000 people.
At about midday, Guaidó took to a large stage before his supporters and pleaded with the international community to send humanitarian aid and protect the movement he has fostered.
“The next days will be decisive. In the next hours, we will have the support of even more countries,” he said, warning that the world was watching to see whether Maduro’s security forces would crack down.
As the national anthem played, Aidé de Ramírez, 67, a merchant drenched in sweat, marveled that there were no security forces in sight, no volleys of buckshot, no clouds of tear gas. “I hope something within them has changed,” she said.
Sister Francys Rodríguez, 39, stepped out from a group of Catholic nuns to extol the virtues of the opposition leadership.
“The presence of Guaidó was sent by divine providence because no one expected it,” said the nun, who works in a local high school. “We are living this problem more than anyone. The kids at the school, they come to us without breakfast, without eating at all. We are all feeling this tragedy.”
Whether protests alone can catalyze a shift in the political standoff in Venezuela is far from clear. As Maduro broke the power of the opposition-controlled legislature in 2017, demonstrators took to the streets for four months, only to be beaten back in clashes with Maduro’s security forces that left more than 100 people dead.
But this time, Maduro is not only facing a challenge on the streets, but increasing unity among his neighbors in the region that his rule is over.
Guaidó’s government has been busy appointing a team of de facto ambassadors to argue its case among the countries that have recognized him. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s state-run oil company could topple the country’s long-crippled economy.
On Thursday, the European Parliament recognized Guaidó as president. That fell short of protesters’ demands for recognition from the European Union itself, but France, Britain, Spain and Germany are expected to follow suit in the coming days.
“It’s perhaps the first time in years that the street isn’t the only factor in this game,” said Yon Goicoechea, a lawyer and political activist who has been imprisoned by Maduro’s government.
“If the government represses us as they have been, if they throw us all in jail, it won’t solve the problem,” he added. “This time, the problem isn’t just demonstrations, but the pressure that their economy is suffocating and their diplomatic isolation.”
Since Guaidó began his bid to oust Maduro, at least 40 people have been killed in clashes with protesters, human rights groups say, a steep escalation from previous protest movements in 2014 and 2017. Many hundreds have been jailed, according to human rights groups.
The crackdown has been made more lethal by Maudro’s deployment of a special police unit against activists, whose ranks may have included civilian vigilantes. Guaidó said the unit was sent to his home, a move the politician said was meant to “intimidate” him and his family.
At an event in Miami on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence again gave strong support to the protesters in Venezuela.
“Across that country, in the largest cities and the smallest towns, people are rising up in defense of their rights,” he said. “This is no time for dialogue, this is the time for action. And the time has come to end the Maduro dictatorship once and for all.”
While Maduro remains unpopular among the vast majority of Venezuelans, some said they were not willing to join Guaidó on Saturday.
Andrea Pacheco, a 30-year-old editor who works for a left-wing news site in Caracas, said she recently became fed up with Maduro’s government and even attended the opposition protest Jan. 23.
But she said Guaidó’s swearing in as “interim president” was a step too far for those like her who spent years backing the country’s former leftist president, Hugo Chávez.
The opposition, she said, “seems to forget that without the people who are the true Chavistas, they won’t be able to make it.”
On Saturday, Maduro held a rally of his own before a crowd of supporters wearing red, the color of his socialist party, and uniformed members of a pro-government militia group. The turnout was far smaller than that of the opposition, experts said.
While it appeared to be a counter-rally to Guaidó’s, he focused on the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of his predecessor, Chávez, whom he said had led “a new history of deep transformation” for the country.
Maduro said he wanted to move up elections for the opposition-controlled National Assembly by a year — a proposal he has made before, and one seen by the opposition as a threat to wipe out its majority.
David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said it was unclear whether Saturday’s protests were a make-or-break moment for Guaidó, but recent demonstrations had delivered the opposition results for the first time in years.
“The successful protests on the 23rd brought about results,” Smilde said, referring to the U.S. sanctions and international recognition of Guaidó. “People can say now, ‘I participated and I saw things happen.’ That can lead them to decide to come out again.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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