Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido on Saturday called for a nationwide march on Caracas to crank up the pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro, as the country endured its third night largely without power.
The massive blackout crippling the oil-rich but economically troubled South American nation has fueled the political standoff between Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s leader by more than 50 countries, and Maduro, who is clinging to power.
No national data was available about the impact of the power outage, but an NGO said at least 15 patients with advanced kidney disease died after they stopped receiving dialysis treatments in darkened hospitals.
As night fell Saturday, the power across much of the country — which first went off Thursday — was still not on. Businesses remained shut, hospitals struggled to operate, and public transport barely functioned.
The 35-year-old Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, earlier told thousands of supporters that he would soon embark on a nationwide listening tour before leading a march on the capital.
“Once we’ve finished the tour, the organization in every state, we’ll announce the date when all together, we’ll come to Caracas,” Guaido said, a megaphone in his hand as he stood on the roof of a pickup truck.
Security forces had prevented the opposition from setting up a stage at their original protest site, arresting three people.
“Miraflores, Miraflores!” chanted Guaido’s supporters in response — a reference to the presidential palace currently occupied by Maduro.
Guaido, who proclaimed himself president of the country of 30 million people in January and says Maduro’s May re-election was illegitimate — wants to set up new polls.
He threatened to authorize an outside military intervention “when the time comes,” pointing to the constitution, which authorizes “the use of a Venezuelan military mission abroad, or foreigners inside the country.”
“All the options are on the table,” he said, borrowing a phrase from US President Donald Trump.
– ‘We will never surrender’ –
Maduro also rallied his supporters. Wearing red, they protested against “imperialism” at a march that marked four years since the United States branded Venezuela a “threat” to its security and imposed sanctions.
“Today, more than ever, we’re anti-imperialists. We will never surrender!” Maduro wrote on Twitter.
He said almost 70 percent of power had been restored by mid-day, when a “cyberattack” was reported at a major power plant.
“That disturbed and undid everything we had achieved,” he said.
Both the pro-Guaido and the pro-Maduro rallies ended without major incident.
– ‘A lot of distress’ –
It is one of the worst and longest blackouts in recent memory in Venezuela, which is already suffering from shortages of food and medicine due to the overarching economic crisis.
Problems have been exacerbated by hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million percent this year.
An estimated 2.7 million people have left the country since 2015.
“I’ve spent three nights in a lot of distress. I’m very anxious because the situation is not getting resolved, the little food that we have in the fridge is going to spoil,” said Francisca Rojas, a 62-year-old retiree living in Caracas.
“How long are we going to put up with this?”
– ‘I share the despair’ –
Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez blamed the initial power outage on a cyberattack against the Guri hydroelectric plant in the country’s south, which serves 80 percent of Venezuela.
Critics blame the government for failing to invest in maintaining the power grid.
Hospitals have since reported terrible problems, and those with generators were using them only in emergencies, while flights were canceled, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded at airports.
The Caracas subway, which transports two million people a day, remained shuttered.
Francisco Valencia, director of the Codevida health rights group that reported the 15 deaths, said some 10,200 people were at risk because dialysis units had switched off.
“We are talking about 95 percent of dialysis units, which today likely hit 100 percent, being paralyzed, due to the power outage,” he said.
Late Saturday, entire families parked their cars along the main highway in Caracas in the hopes of capturing faint cell phone service to check on loved ones and get the latest news.
“My son and my brother live outside Venezuela, and they want to hear from us,” said Bernadette Ramirez, who came with some neighbors to the highway.