CARACAS: Thousands of women marched in Caracas Saturday against leftist President Nicolas Maduro’s decision to block opposition-led efforts for a recall referendum.
“Brave Venezuela, you will be set free!” chanted the women, most of whom dressed in white.
The escalating standoff between the unpopular government and the powerful but fractured opposition is destabilizing the oil-rich South American state, stricken by food shortages and violent crime.
“We’re all in!” read a sign carried by protesting 65 year-old grandmother Maria de Guevara.
“We can’t handle this anymore, there is no food, there is no medicine, there is no future for my grandchildren nor for any Venezuelans,” she said.
Protest organizer Lilian Tintori, wife of prominent jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, said the women will go to the streets “and fight for the recall.”
The authorities on Thursday quashed the opposition’s plan to remove Maduro through a referendum by annulling a key stage in the process. The government also banned opposition leaders from leaving Venezuela.
The following day, Henrique Capriles, a leading figure with the opposition MUD coalition, said the move violates Venezuela’s constitution, accusing the Socialist government of staging “a coup d’etat.”
The coalition called for nationwide demonstrations starting next Wednesday.
Former National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, the second most powerful government figure after Maduro, told a news conference on Saturday that the protests are linked to plans for a coup d’etat.
He pointed to an unspecified plan “of subversive character” found on the mobile phone of opposition councilman Jose Vicente Garcia, who was arrested for possessing two grenades and two tear gas canisters, according to the government.
That could give the authorities legal reasons to arrest opposition leaders, Cabello said. “Under no circumstance are we going to let ourselves be toppled,” he said.
Nevertheless, he added that the government was ready to talk with international mediators currently in Caracas, even though the referendum against Maduro was not “in negotiation.”
Opposition leaders have also agreed to meet with the team of mediators, led by former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Maduro lacks ‘legitimacy’
In Washington, Organization of American States chief Luis Almagro on Saturday blasted Maduro’s move as undemocratic.
“Only dictatorships deprive their citizens of rights, ignore the legislature and hold political prisoners,” he wrote in a statement.
Maduro has lost “all of his legitimacy… after leaving the people of Venezuela without electoral rights,” he said.
He urged using mediators that have “the trust of everyone” to help resolve the crisis.
Fearing mass chaos, 12 OAS members issued a statement urging Venezuela to work toward peacefully overcoming the crisis.
The countries — including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and the United States — expressed “deep concern” over Maduro’s decisions in a joint statement issued by Argentina’s foreign ministry.
The measures affect the chances that talks would lead to “a peaceful exit to the critical situation” in Venezuela, the statement read.
It called on “all political actors” in Venezuela to engage in negotiations aimed at reaching “long-lasting solutions in favor of democracy and social stability,” urging the “full respect for human rights.”