By Carmen Sesin
MIAMI — Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are protesting in cities worldwide Saturday to pressure the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, out of office.
Venezuelans filled the streets in more than 70 cities around the world, including Caracas, Miami, Madrid, Milan, Frankfurt, Melbourne, Athens, and Beirut.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced before tens of thousands of cheering supporters in Caracas that humanitarian assistance will begin to flow within the next few days, despite objections by Maduro. In a tweet Friday night, national security adviser John Bolton stated that at the request of Guaidó, the U.S. will “mobilize and transport humanitarian aid.” In a separate tweet Saturday, Bolton urged the “military high command” to “stand on the side of the Venezuelan people.”
“We are breathing air of change and we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Francisco Fermin, an official with the National Assembly in Caracas who has been shot four times during protests in the past. “I plan to continue protesting, and making my voice heard,” he told NBC News in a phone interview.
At a counterprotest in Caracas, Maduro proposed holding early elections for the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Elections for the National Assembly aren’t supposed to take place until 2020. Thousands of public employees and supporters of the government gathered in the city’s downtown for the rally organized by Maduro’s government. These demonstrators danced and raised a banner that bore the photo of late President Hugo Chávez and lettering that read “20 years of popular victories,” according to the Associated Press.
Maduro, a socialist who succeeded Chávez after his death in 2013, was sworn in on Jan. 10 for a second six-year term following an election that was criticized internationally as illegitimate.
Under Maduro’s rule, the country has been in a downward spiral with growing political discontent. Hyperinflation, high crime rates, as well as, severe shortages in food and medicine, have sent over 3 million Venezuelans fleeing to other countries.
“Venezuelans around the world are united more than ever,” said Karymn Salcedo, an activist in Miami opposed to Maduro’s government with the organization “We Are All Venezuelans.”
“We Venezuelans, have regained hope,” said Salcedo, who is also helping coordinate some of the protests.
Many Venezuelans, unhappy with Maduro, had given up hope for change since the last major mobilization of protests took place in the summer of 2017. But the country’s fate took a turn on Jan. 23 when Guaidó, a little known opposition leader at the time, swore himself in as interim leader during a rally filled with supporters.
Guaidó, 35, the head of the National Assembly, has transformed into an internationally recognized figure. Donald Trump backed Guaídó as the rightful leader and most countries in Latin America, as well as, Canada, Australia, and the European parliament have thrown their support behind Guaidó as well.
“If those countries act in accordance with their recognition of Guaidó — or at least their non-recognition of Maduro — then that means they will take steps that, over time, will have an economic and political effect on Maduro,” said Gustavo Arnavat, a former Obama administration official and a senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On Saturday, a high ranking officer defected from Maduro’s government for the first time since Guaidó was sworn in. In a Youtube video video, Gen. Francisco Yañez said democracy is imminent and called on his compatriots to participate in the protests.
“The community here is very happy with Guaidó,” said Jeber Barreto, the representative of Guaidó’s Popular Will party in Lebanon. He expected hundreds to rally in downtown Beirut. Like in many other countries, the Venezuelan population in Lebanon has grown exponentially to almost 15,000 in recent years. Many are of Lebanese ancestry.
“I would be lying if I told you I am not constantly anticipating what will happen next, but at the same time, I am content with everything we have achieved,” said Barreto. “We are confident of what we are doing and if we follow the guidelines of Guaidó, Venezuela will be free.”
Government supporters portray Guaidó as a puppet of the Trump administration. Maduro has said Guaidó is taking part in a coup directed by the White House and has accused Trump of ordering neighboring Colombia to kill him. He has vowed to stay in office.
The U.S. has emerged as the strongest supporter of Guaidó. Vice President Mike Pence met with Venezuelan exiles in Miami on Friday and said “this is no time for dialogue,” to a cheering crowd. Miami has the largest concentration of Venezuelan exiles in the world. Pence told the group of Venezuelans that Washington was working toward a “peaceful transition.” Over the past week, the administration has reiterated that, “all options are on the table.”
But Arnavat thinks these kinds of statements suggesting military involvement “are largely aimed at intimidating Maduro and the Venezuelan armed forces.” He also warned that a U.S. military incursion could have significant unintended consequences, “including a deterioration of our relationship with currently supportive countries in the region.”
On Thursday, Guaidó accused officers from a state security unit of showing up at his apartment and warned them to stay away from his family. Venezuela’s police denied going to his home. The U.S. has warned of “serious consequences” if Guaidó is harmed.
Earlier in the week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. The sanctions could starve the Maduro government of billions in export revenue and further cripple the economy.
In retaliation, Venezuela’s Supreme Court barred Guaidó from leaving the country and froze his financial assets after the country’s chief prosecutor announced an investigation into Guaidó’s anti-government activities.
For now, Venezuelans are invigorated to continue protesting. “These demonstrations do matter if they are large and sustained because they represent the will of the people, absent any other mechanism to express that will,” Arnavat said.