Fears the “Great March on Caracas” could trigger violent clashes between Chavistas and opposition

Venezuela’s opposition and government head into a crucial test of strength this Thursday with massive marches for and against a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro that have raised fears of a violent confrontation.

(Merco Press) – Soldiers and police began taking up positions at strategic locations across the country on Wednesday, ahead of what the opposition is billing as its biggest show of force yet — dubbed “The Great March on Caracas” — against the populist government.

Opposition leaders are hoping to put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to demand quick action on a recall vote that Maduro has vehemently resisted. It comes amid an economic collapse that has led to widespread shortages of food and medicine, violent crime and outbreaks of looting in a once oil-rich country.

“All of Venezuela is mobilizing for the right to vote” said Jesus Torrealba, the head of the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Calling Thursday’s action “the most important political mobilization of our recent history,” he said marchers would defy the government’s “strategy of fear, blackmail and intimidation.”

Going on the offensive, the “Chavistas” or government loyalists, staged a big rally Tuesday. They held another on Wednesday, and have called on their supporters to “defend the revolution” with a massive turnout on Thursday at what they call “The Great March on Caracas”.

“Don’t provoke us because not only are we going to block up Caracas so that no one can enter, but we will also make sure that no one can leave,” said former National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, noting that private flights over Venezuela, and drones over Caracas have been banned this week.

Maduro has accused the opposition of planning a “coup” and threatened to imprison opposition leaders if violence breaks out at Thursday’s protests. “Squeal, cry or scream, jail is where they’ll go,” he said.

At the heart of the battle is the timing of the referendum. If a recall vote is held before January 10 and Maduro loses, new elections must be held. If he loses in a recall held after that date, then he would simply turn over power to his hand-picked vice president.

The opposition, which accuses the National Electoral Council of slow-rolling the process to benefit the “Chavistas,” is demanding that the process be accelerated so a vote can be held this year. The council insists it won’t be swayed by protests and has warned that the process will be halted altogether if street protests turn violent.

Despite the angry public mood, the opposition has not organized mass rallies since 2014, when the government crushed weeks-long anti-government protests, a confrontation that left 43 dead and prominent opposition leaders in prison.

Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who distanced himself from the protests in 2014, said that this time the opposition is banking on mass mobilizations and international pressure to get the government to accept the recall election.