Caracas — Tens of thousands of people who want to see President Nicolás Maduro removed from power swarmed the streets of the capital and other cities on Saturday, as an air force general announced he had turned against the authoritarian government.

An opposition that appeared fractured and broken in   has been revived after a new leader, Juan Guaidó, was sworn-in on January 23 as interim president, directly challenging the rule of Maduro.

The US and other countries have recognised Guaidó as the country’s leader, with the Trump administration announcing sanctions to squeeze the country’s lifeblood, oil exports.

Addressing the raucous crowd, Guaidó said that revenue the US would funnel from Venezuelan assets to opponents of the regime would be used for humanitarian aid that would be dispatched soon from neighbouring Colombia and Brazil to help the hungry and sick. The tactic is designed to pressure Venezuela’s military to allow aid across the border and defy Maduro, who claims there is no humanitarian crisis.

“They won’t steal the money of the Venezuelan people,” said Guaidó, a 35-year-old congressman chosen to represent the opposition. He said that more governments would soon support his parallel government, referring to Spain, France, Germany and other EU countries that are expected to recognise him as interim president.

As crowds across the country streamed into streets, draped in the flag and beating drums, Maduro showed no sign he would leave office, negotiate an exit or lead the country towards new presidential elections.

“I am president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” Maduro, dressed in his movement’s signature red, said before a crowd of supporters not far from the presidential palace.He spoke on an important day for Chavismo, as his movement is known: Twenty years ago on Saturday, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, was sworn-in and began to overturn the old economic and political order and lead Venezuela to socialism.

“I’m the sovereign president, the president who is working, the president of the workers, of the people, the Chavista president,” Maduro said. “The coup d’état has failed and they haven’t noticed.”

Deprivation and rampant crime

Venezuela is a country whipsawed by deprivation and rampant crime, which has prompted 3-million people to flee. In December, 95% of those polled were not satisfied with the situation in the country and 85% wanted political change, according to the pollster, Datincorp. Among those who support the regime, 55% wanted change.

“We are so tired of everything,” said Salome Salazar, 36, a protester whose monthly salary has fallen to the equivalent of $5 because of the world’s highest inflation. She said she has seen most of her family members flee.“I want them to go, all of them in the government,” she said. “To just leave. I want the Venezuela I knew when I was nine years old.”

Norlia Pérez, a university student, was like many at the protest. She is young, 23-years-old, and said she wants to live in a more modern country not riven by poverty and the scarcity of food. “If things do not change, then we will have no future, and I want to remain in Venezuela,” she said.

Many said they were thankful for the Trump administration’s support. US officials have also warned that a military option, though distant, has been on the table. The main thrust of the opposition has been to urge the military brass and soldiers to abandon the president, who has responded by visiting with army troop to demonstrate their loyalty, events then broadcast on state television.

“It’s the support and the role of the armed forces that is necessary for the reconstruction of Venezuela,” Guaido told his followers. He also said that he believed change “is very, very close in Venezuela”.

On Saturday morning, an air force general, Francisco Yánez, became the first to recognise Guaidó as the interim leader and called the regime “a dictatorship” that didn’t have the support of most Venezuelans.

Though he is the second high-ranking officer to defect in recent days — the military attaché at the Venezuelan embassy recently abandoned Maduro — military analysts here have said that  Maduro will only be in danger if commanders who oversee the country’s key military bases revolt. The armed forces labelled Yánez a traitor and said he does not command any troops.

At Maduro’s rally, buses were used to bring in supporters and public-sector workers, who were greeted with recordings of  Chavez, singing the national anthem. They were told that supporting Maduro would mean continued state handouts, such as the bags of corn flour, cooking oil and pasta delivered under a programme known by its Spanish initials, CLAP.

“I will keep supporting because I owe them a lot,” said Pedro Tapia, 18. “A house, the CLAP bag. Count on me.”

Wall Street Journal