Venezuelans march against Maduro, U.S. mulls recognizing rival Guaido

 Venezuelans march against Maduro, U.S. mulls recognizing rival Guaido

By Corina Pons and Matt Spetalnick

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets on Wednesday to demand an end to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, while the United States considered recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's rightful leader.

The rally in Caracas followed dozens of violent protests and looting overnight that left four people dead, according to an official and a rights group, an echo of tumultuous street demonstrations two years ago.

The opposition has been energized by young Congress chief Guaido, who has led a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 to another term in office following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as fraudulent.

Putting more pressure on the Socialist leader, sources said the Trump administration told U.S. energy companies it could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week if the political situation worsens.

Any change in government in Venezuela will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. They have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.

"We've come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we're going hungry," said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas who joined the Tuesday night protest that he said was met with tear gas and police gun fire.

Demonstrators clogged avenues of eastern Caracas, a traditional opposition bastion, where Guaido was expected to speak in the afternoon.

U.S. President Donald Trump could recognize Guaido as the legitimate president as soon as Wednesday, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The ruling Socialist Party, which says the country is victim of an "economic war," is holding a rival march.

"I'm here to defend the fatherland, to defend Venezuela and our president - I'm sick of (the opposition) saying that they're firing him," said Yenny Duarte, 46, a member of the country's civilian military, who was marching in support of Maduro.


Guaido, 35, has called for the military to disavow Maduro and promised amnesty for those who help to bring about a return to democracy. He has said he would be willing to replace Maduro as interim president with the support of the military and to call free elections.

"To all of the national armed forces, our call is clear - from this parliament, we extend our hand and ask that you come to the side of the constitution and the people, your people," Guaido wrote on Twitter.

In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot to death at a protest on Tuesday in wester Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.

Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during a looting of a grocery store that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said in a telephone interview.

The Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Maduro has presided over Venezuela's spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis. His re-election in 2018 was widely viewed as a sham due to widespread election irregularities.

His administration has jailed dozens of opposition activists and leaders for seeking to overthrow him through street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017. The 2017 protests left 125 people dead in clashes with police.

(Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Alistair Bell)

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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 00:07:03 IST