Power Still Flickering, Venezuelans Take to Streets to Protest
CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of opposition supporters marched to central Caracas on Saturday, defying a government ban on rallies in the Venezuelan capital’s core and testing a heavy police presence as the country struggled to emerge from its worst blackout in recent memory.
Clashes between the police and protesters were reported early in the day, but a cordon of officers stepped aside to allow the demonstrators to rally and hear from the opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
“We have to conquer public spaces in a peaceful manner,” Mr. Guaidó, standing atop a car, declared through a megaphone. “We have to prepare ourselves for very tough times.”
Power was intermittent in Caracas on Saturday, two days after the country went dark, and it remained off in large portions of the country’s west. Much of the country’s telecommunications network was off-line after another power failure on Saturday, according to NetBlocks, an internet monitoring group. State utility workers say it will take days to fully restore the national grid.
Opposition leaders have staged rallies for weeks in an effort to dislodge President Nicolás Maduro, whose re-election they say was rigged and whose policies they claim have brought the country to economic ruin.
The problems caused by the blackout — a loss of communication and public transportation — had complicated the opposition’s efforts to organize Saturday’s protests. But its leaders were jubilant at the result: a series of demonstrations across the country that drew thousands of supporters and only limited pushback from the authorities.
One group of opposition supporters blocked the main highway in the capital, but national guardsmen sent to confront the demonstrators made no attempt to dislodge them.
“This is one of the biggest victories of our strategy and organization,” said Carlos Paparoni, an opposition leader. “To all the policemen and guards we say: Our fight is not against you. They have also been without electricity. Their food is also rotting in their fridges.”
The nationwide power failure has intensified pressure on Mr. Maduro, who appeared in public on Saturday for the first time since a problem at Venezuela’s main hydropower plant on Thursday afternoon plunged the country into darkness. Backup generators at upmarket hotels, which have become sanctuaries for Caracas’s affluent, had begun running out of fuel by Saturday.
A rival pro-government rally in Caracas on Saturday drew a smaller crowd. Mr. Maduro tweeted his appreciation with a video that cut together images of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, and celebrating crowds.
He also sounded a familiar theme, blaming American intervention for the unrest.
“Today, when the empire of the U.S., in its desperation to grab our natural resources, intensifies its brutal aggression against the fatherland,” Mr. Maduro said, “we stand firm to defend our land and cry with force: Yankee go home! We are anti-imperialist!”
He later appeared at the pro-government rally, declaring, “Here I am, facing my responsibilities.”
Many of his supporters wore red, the color associated with the socialist government of Mr. Chávez. One woman told the state television network Telesur that the rallygoers were “defending with blood our revolution.”
Mr. Maduro and his ministers have blamed the blackout on sabotage, without providing evidence, and have said the United States was behind it.
Critics have said it was the result of years of mismanagement and underinvestment.
“I’m here because I can’t take it anymore,” said Maria Elena Jiménez, a retiree draped in a Venezuelan flag who turned out for an opposition rally in Caracas. Venezuela’s economic crisis, she said, had broken her family apart: Her daughter emigrated and her brother was killed in a robbery outside his house last year.
Crying, Ms. Jiménez asked, “How am I going to stay in my house when my country has touched the bottom?”
The blackout has crippled air travel and public transportation, devastated scarce food supplies and threatened the lives of thousands of hospital patients. Opposition leaders claimed that 79 patients across the country had died because of the blackout, although that figure could not be independently corroborated. In the capital, residents lined up outside food stores and gasoline stations to try to restock supplies and fuel.
Economists and rights groups say it will take weeks to take the full stock of the economic and human cost of the blackout. But deprivation was on the minds of opposition protesters on Saturday.
“I’m here to show my indignation and my exhaustion,” said Belkis Pernalete, a psychologist who marched in the central city of Valencia. She said the blackout had forced her family to eat its entire supply of frozen food.
Still, Ms. Pernalete said, she was among the lucky ones: She had food to eat.