By Vivian Sequera and Mariela Nava
CARACAS/MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – After weeks of power cuts and limited access to water, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on Saturday to back opposition leader Juan Guaido and protest against President Nicolas Maduro, who they accuse of wrecking the economy.
Venezuelans, already suffering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine, say the crisis in the chaotic country has worsened over the past month. That is when crippling nationwide power outages began to leave vast swaths of territory in the dark for days at a time, cutting off water supplies and cell phone service.
Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly and recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by most Western nations, called for Saturday’s marches to mark the start of what he has billed as a new wave of “definitive” protests to oust Maduro.
Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, denouncing Maduro as a “usurper” after he began a second term following a 2018 national election widely considered fraudulent.
Maduro, who retains the support of the military and allies including Russia and China, has derided Guaido as a U.S. puppet and said he will face justice.
In Caracas, thousands of opposition supporters assembled at a main rally point in the eastern El Marques district. Protesters there said their homes had been without water for days and many had taken to drawing it from unsanitary pipes or streams running off the Avila mountain overlooking Caracas.
“We have to get rid of this usurper, and we can’t think about anything else,” said Claudia Rueda, a 53-year-old homemaker at the Caracas protest.
At one point, the crowd chanted, “The water has gone, power has gone, and now Maduro what’s missing is that you go too.”
Two massive power outages since February have led Maduro’s government to cancel school classes and work and left many businesses shuttered. The resumption of services has been uneven, with cities such as San Cristobal, Valencia and Maracay still reporting intermittent blackouts.
“We haven’t just come to demand water and power. We’ve come to demand freedom and democracy,” Guaido said at the Caracas rally, surrounded by a cheering crowd. “We can’t let ourselves become used to this, we can’t put up with it, we aren’t going to let these crooks keep hold of our country.”
While no immediate protest-related violence was reported in Caracas, witnesses reported clashes between protesters and police in the steamy oil hub of Maracaibo.
Protesters in the city, in the western state of Zulia, told Reuters police had fired rubber bullet rounds and tear gas to disperse them.
“I’m fed up. They hurt me, and though I was frightened, what it makes me most is angry,” said Denis Fernandez, a 25-year-old who said he had been injured by a rubber bullet.
Fernandez said his daughter had almost died from hepatitis a month ago, as hospitals had no supplies to treat her. When there is no electricity for air conditioning, he said he and his wife had taken to fanning their children at night to keep them cool.
The National Assembly, on its Twitter account, said two of its lawmakers had been arrested by authorities at the Maracaibo protest and demanded their immediate release. Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request to comment.
The ruling Socialist Party staged a rival march in Caracas on Saturday but turnout was sparse, with just a few hundred people clad in red shirts and red baseball caps banging drums and dancing salsa.
Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislature controlled by the Socialist Party, on Tuesday approved a measure allowing for the possible prosecution of Guaido by stripping him of his parliamentary immunity.
The chief prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation of Guaido and his alleged links to “incidents of violence” in January, but it has not yet ordered his arrest or officially charged him with any crime.
The U.S. government on Friday took another step in its efforts to force Maduro out, by imposing new sanctions on Venezuelan oil shipments, and promising “stronger action” against key ally Cuba for helping to keep his government afloat.
(Additional reporting by Mayela Armas and Shay Valderrama in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, and Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Tom Brown)