Venezuelans took to the streets of cities across the country on Friday in the latest in a series of protests demanding a timely referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's future in order to potentially force early presidential elections — but things didn't go as planned.
Weeks of marches amid rising political tensions have underlined how fed up Venezuelans are with triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of basic food and medication, as well as with the president's efforts to blame it all on an "economic war" he says is being waged by the local elite backed by US imperialism.
"Hunger has reached the barrios," Judith Echezuría said as she marched. "This government doesn't care about people."
The 60-year-old, who lives in one of the capital's poorest areas, added that she had supported Maduro's charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who built the regime on a platform of subsidies paid for with abundant oil revenues that have since disappeared.
Although determined and noisy, the few thousand angry residents who gathered in central Caracas signified a disappointing turnout when compared to the mobilization of hundreds of thousands who shut down the capital two weeks ago.
"Faced with an opposition that is ever more divided, incoherent, and desperate, we Chavistas raise the flags of the fatherland," the ruling socialist party deputy and former house speaker Diosdado Cabello said in a tweet after it became clear the marches would not be massive.
Opposition leaders dismissed the idea that protest fatigue is damaging their efforts to force the referendum on Maduro, and instead attributed the disappointing numbers to Thursday's statement by the national electoral authorities that they would be closing their offices because of "threats." This, they argued, removed the protests' planned focus on the electoral authorities' expected announcement of the date on which the opposition can start collecting the signatures it needs to force the plebiscite.
The opposition has repeatedly accused the electoral authorities of dragging their feet over the announcement in an effort to ensure that the referendum itself does not take place before January 10, the halfway point in Maduro's term. A vote to oust the president before that date should theoretically trigger a new presidential election. After that date, however, Maduro would be replaced by his vice president, with the next elections not due until December 2018.
Opposition activist Lilian Tintori insisted the march was a success despite the numbers.
"We represent the millions who want change," she said.
Tintori added that she had a message for the protesters from her husband, the imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López.
"He says we need to be firm demanding the recall of Nicolás Maduro," she said. "He said, 'Don't get tired.'"