CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition activists scuffled with police and troops on Saturday morning in the run-up to a rally intended to keep up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro, as electricity remained intermittent after the country’s worst blackout in decades.
Dozens of demonstrators attempted to walk along an avenue in Caracas but were moved onto the sidewalk by police in riot gear, leading them to shout at the officers and push on their riot shields. One woman was sprayed with pepper spray, according to a local broadcaster.
The OPEC nation was plunged into darkness on Thursday evening in what the governing Socialist Party called an act of U.S.-sponsored sabotage but opposition critics derided as the result of two decades of mismanagement and corruption.
Much of the country remained without power on Saturday morning, including the presidential palace of Miraflores, which was running on back-up power generators, according to Reuters witnesses.
“We’re all upset that we’ve got no power, no phone service, no water and they want to block us,” said Rossmary Nascimiento, 45, a nutritionist at the Caracas rally. “I want a normal country.”
The Socialist Party has called for a competing march to protest what it calls imperialism by the United States, which has levied crippling oil sanctions on Maduro’s government in efforts to cut off its sources of funding.
Several hundred people gathered in central Caracas for a march to denounce U.S. pressure on Venezuela, which the president says is the cause of the country’s economic situation.
“We’re here, we’re mobilized, because we’re not going to let the gringos take over,” said Elbadina Gomez, 76, who works for an activist group linked to the Socialist Party.
The power flickered on and off in parts of Caracas on Saturday morning. In much of the country, it has remained out since Thursday.
Julio Castro, a doctor who heads a non-government organization called Doctors For Health, said via Twitter that a total of 13 people had died amid the blackout, including nine deaths in emergency rooms.
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the deaths or whether they were a product of the blackout. The Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.
Clinics in the sweltering western state of Zulia, which suffers chronic regional blackouts, had scaled back operations after nearly 72 hours without power.
“We’re not offering services and we don’t have any patients staying here because the generator is not working,” said Chiquinquira Caldera, head of administration at the San Lucas clinic in the city of Maracaibo, as she played a game of Chinese checkers with doctors who were waiting for power to return.
Venezuela, already suffering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages of basic goods, has been mired in a major political crisis since opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, calling Maduro a usurper following the 2018 election, which Maduro won but was widely considered fraudulent.
“They’re planning to tire us out, but they no longer have a way of containing the people, who have decided to ensure the end of the usurpation,” Guaido tweeted on Saturday.
Maduro says Guaido is a puppet of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to control Venezuela’s oil wealth.
Guaido has asked foreign countries to ramp up pressure on Maduro and to help get humanitarian aid into the country.
Opposition activists last month attempted to bring food into the country via Colombia but the aid convoys were halted at the border and two aid trucks went up in flames.
Former mayor and exiled opposition activist Antonio Ledezma on Saturday called on Guaido to seek United Nations intervention in Venezuela by invoking a principle known as “responsibility to protect.”
The U.N. doctrine sometimes referred to as R2P was created to prevent mass killings such as those of Rwanda and Bosnia and places the onus on the international community to protect populations from crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
“President @jguaido, (you should) formally request Humanitarian Intervention, applying the concept of R2P, to stop extermination, genocide and destruction of what’s left of our country,” Ledezma wrote via Twitter.
Trump has said that a “military option” is on the table with regard to Venezuela.
But Guaido has avoided discussion of any foreign troops in Venezuela, and Latin American neighbors have emphatically opposed a U.S. intervention as a way of addressing the situation.
Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Isaac Urrutia in Maracaibo, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Matthew Lewis