Caracas (AFP) – Thousands of Venezuelans prepared to protest once again Saturday as opposition leader Juan Guaido cranks up the pressure on beleaguered President Nicolas Maduro and the lights came back on following an electricity blackout that caused chaos in the crisis-wracked country.
Both Guaido and Maduro, who are locked in a bitter power struggle for the right to lead the oil-rich South American nation, have asked their supporters to fill the streets of Caracas and other cities.
“I call on the Venezuelan people to make a huge statement in the streets against the usurper, corrupt and incapable regime that has plunged our country into darkness,” Guaido wrote on Twitter.
“We return to the streets and we won’t leave until we reach the goal,” said the 35-year-old National Assembly leader, who is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s interim president.
Guaido is trying to force out Maduro — whose re-election in May he deems illegitimate — in order to set up new elections.
Early Saturday, riot police were out in force at the site of Guaido’s proposed protest.
Opposition lawmakers denounced the overnight arrest of three people who were setting up a stage at the opposition rally site.
Maduro has asked his backers to march against “imperialism.”
– ‘A forceful response’ –
The mounting political pressure comes as services slowly returned to normal in Caracas and the states of Miranda and Vargas, home to the country’s international airport and main port.
“The US empire once again underestimates the conscience and determination of Venezuela’s people,” Maduro tweeted.
“I assure them that every attempt at imperial aggression will be met with a forceful response from the patriots who love and valiantly defend our homeland.”
The western regions of Barinas, Tachira and Zulia remained without electricity while in other states the supply was proving unstable.
It was one of the worst and longest blackouts in recent memory in Venezuela, which began Thursday afternoon and paralyzed most of the country. Its cause is still unknown.
Hospitals had reported terrible problems and those with generators were using them only in emergencies.
Flights were canceled, leaving hundreds of travelers stranded at airports.
The Caracas subway, which transports two million people a day, remained suspended early Saturday and shops were closed, but internet and telecommunications services were returning to normal.
Late Friday, people banging saucepans could be heard around the capital: a form of popular protest often seen in South America.
Maduro had blamed the blackout on US sabotage and shut down offices and schools on Friday.
Large lines formed at the few gas stations open as people fetched fuel for generators. Some took gas from their cars.
The power “came for one moment and went away again,” Antonio Belisario, who had been waiting around an hour at a gas station, told AFP.
– Scenes of chaos –
Venezuela has suffered more than four years of recession that has seen poverty soar as citizens struggle with food and medicine shortages.
During the blackout, witnesses described scenes of chaos at several hospitals as people tried to move sick relatives in the dark to clinics with better emergency power facilities.
Marielsi Aray, a patient at the University Hospital in Caracas, died after her respirator stopped working.
“The doctors tried to help her by pumping manually. They did everything they could, but with no electricity, what were they to do?” asked Jose Lugo, her distraught uncle.
The putrid odor of rotting flesh hung around the entrance to Caracas’s main Bello Monte morgue, where refrigerators had stopped working and worried relatives gathered outside, waiting to be allowed to bury their dead.
Following Maduro’s decision to close the borders to keep out desperately needed humanitarian aid, the country was completely isolated on Friday.
Critics blame the government for failing to invest in maintaining the electrical grid, although the government often points the finger at external factors when the lights go out.
The state power company Corpoelec said there had been sabotage at the Guri hydroelectric plant in Bolivar state, one of the largest in Latin America. It gave no details.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro was wrong to blame the US or any other country for Venezuela’s woes.
“Power shortages and starvation are the result of the Maduro regime’s incompetence,” he tweeted.