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Venezuelan opposition protesters tear gassed, blocked by national guard

By Andrew V. Pestano
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The Venezuelan opposition is working to remove President Nicolas Maduro through a recall referendum which has been stalled by Venezuela's electoral council. On Wednesday, the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition called for nationwide protests to demand the electoral council advance the CNE's procedures. Protesters were met with obstruction and tear gas in some instances. Photo courtesy of Diputado LEON
The Venezuelan opposition is working to remove President Nicolas Maduro through a recall referendum which has been stalled by Venezuela's electoral council. On Wednesday, the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition called for nationwide protests to demand the electoral council advance the CNE's procedures. Protesters were met with obstruction and tear gas in some instances. Photo courtesy of Diputado LEON

CARACAS, Venezuela, May 18 (UPI) -- The Venezuelan opposition was quickly greeted with obstruction and tear gas on Wednesday after launching a march in Caracas over a referendum seeking to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

The march was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. local time in Caracas' Venezuela Plaza and within half an hour there were widespread reports of security officials, mainly the Venezuelan National Guard, using tear gas against demonstrators and obstructing protesters' paths. Several marches were held nationwide aimed to descend on the regional headquarters of Venezuela's National Electoral Council, or CNE.

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"CNE rectors, high military commanders and government officials: Do not be complicit in human rights violations that Maduro advances to cling to power," opposition leader and National Assembly member Freddy Guevara said in a statement.

The Democratic Unity Roundtable, or MUD, opposition coalition held the protest march to demand the CNE comply with the opposition's efforts to initiate a recall referendum on Maduro. The march culminated when opposition leaders handed over a letter to Luis E. Rondón, head rector of the CNE, which urged for the electoral council to proceed with the second phase of the referendum process.

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The MUD in late April complied with the electoral council's requirement to gather signatures to proceed with the recall effort. The MUD collected more than 1 million signatures out of the nearly 200,000 that were needed.

After completing the first phase of the petition process, the opposition is waiting for the CNE to provide the necessary documents to move ahead with the final phase. The MUD will need to collect signatures from 20 percent, or about 4 million, of the South American country's voting-eligible population within three days.

There were reports of several major subway stations being shut down in Caracas on Wednesday as the march occurred, incidents similar to what occurred last Wednesday in the MUD's first major protest demanding CNE action.

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"Metro closed access to Caracas. The fear Nicolas Maduro has of the people who want recall and change," Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Venezuela's Miranda state and a key opposition leader who almost defeated Maduro in a 2013 election, said in a statement. "When they rob you in Caracas you can't find one officer. Today they are all in the streets over the fear Maduro has that we ask the CNE to validate our signature!"

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The opposition is working to hold the recall referendum in which Venezuelans will be asked whether Maduro should be removed from the presidency by the end of the year. Maduro's approval ratings are usually below 20 percent -- at times dipping into single digits -- meaning the likelihood of his removal is high.

On Tuesday, Maduro took aim at the opposition's referendum efforts.

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"The opposition wants a coup d'etat, foreign intervention and economic warfare. Recall is an option, not an obligation," Maduro said. "We are not required to hold any referendum in this country of any kind."

Tensions were high as demonstrators were targeted by tear gas in the streets of Caracas, including one incident caught on video.

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