Venezuela braced for rival demonstrations Wednesday for and against President Nicolas Maduro, whose moves to tighten his grip on power have triggered deadly unrest and escalated the country’s political and economic crisis.
Maduro’s opponents are vowing to stage the “mother of all protests” calling for his ouster, after two weeks of violent demonstrations that have left five people dead and dozens wounded.
Sowing fears of more violence, Maduro is in turn urging his supporters, the military and civilian militias to defend the leftist “revolution” launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999.
It is set to be the biggest day of protests since Maduro’s allies moved to strip the power of the opposition-majority legislature — the only lever of government they do not control — and banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from politics.
The streets of Caracas have seen running battles pitting masked protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails against riot police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.
The protests have been relatively small so far, with turnout in the thousands.
The opposition is now hoping to flood the streets with a sea of protesters, whom they are urging to remain peaceful.
They plan to march from 26 rally points toward central Caracas, a pro-Maduro bastion and the seat of government. The authorities say they will not allow them into the area, where the rival rally will be held.
Maduro’s camp vowed not to be outdone by the opposition.
“The whole of Caracas will be held by the revolutionary forces,” said lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, one of the president’s most powerful allies.
Pressure on Maduro has increased in an economic crisis aggravated by a fall in prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports, which in this state-led economy has triggered severe shortages of food and medicine.
On Tuesday, the center-right opposition repeated its call for the military — a pillar of Maduro’s power — to abandon him.
“It is the moment for the armed forces to demonstrate that they are with the constitution and with the people,” said opposition congressional leader Julio Borges.
But Venezuela’s defense minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, vowed the army’s “unconditional loyalty.”
Maduro blasted Borges for urging a “coup” against him, and said the opposition lawmaker “should be put on trial.”
The president rallied his troops this week, vowing to send the army into the streets and ordering pro-government militias to be expanded to half a million members, “each with a rifle.”
“The hour of combat has arrived,” Maduro said. “We are at a crucial moment in the destiny of our nation.”
International campaign group Human Rights Watch said strengthening of the militia aimed to intimidate the opposition.
“We know of no other similar case in Latin America of a government arming urban militias,” the group’s Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco told a news conference in Washington.
“By that I mean delinquents, gangs that act with total impunity and intimidate citizens, with power to shoot and make arrests.”
In Latin America, where other governments are increasingly alarmed by Venezuela’s instability, 11 countries including Brazil, Mexico and Chile issued a statement Monday condemning the deaths of protesters and urging the security forces to show restraint.
The fragmented opposition has been galvanized since the Supreme Court issued a ruling on March 30 seizing the legislature’s power.
The court partly backtracked after an international outcry, but tension only increased when authorities slapped a political ban on Capriles on April 7.
Venezuela suffered its last major wave of unrest in 2014, when 43 people were killed in anti-government riots.