CARACAS, Venezuela — Political parties called for a nationwide protest Monday against Venezuela’s socialist-oriented government but attracted only several thousand people, in a sign of the difficulties the opposition is facing in building a strong protest movement even as the nation descends into crisis.
In September, massive crowds estimated at up to 1 million people turned out for a march to promote a vote to recall President Nicolás Maduro, but election officials later ruled out holding such a referendum in 2016. An opposition coalition is still pushing for a new presidential vote, as well as a date for regional elections that are due this year.
This oil-rich country has been in a severe economic crisis because of plummeting petroleum prices and government mismanagement, resulting in skyrocketing inflation and dire food and medicine shortages.
“The protest is a measurement of the motivation” of Venezuelans, said Luis Vicente Leon, the president of Datanalisis, a respected polling firm. “Motivation has decreased because the opposition doesn’t have a common aim,” he said, adding that citizens are also “frustrated and scared.”
About 80 percent of the population views the government negatively, according to opinion polls. But some people are reluctant to join public protests, especially after authorities jailed several opposition politicians earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the opposition is divided over whether to continue a Vatican-mediated dialogue with the government or to pursue a more confrontational strategy.
By midmorning, shortly before the protest was supposed to start, only about 500 people had rallied outside the headquarters of opposition party Primero Justicia, waving banners and swaying to patriotic songs. Many said they had been stopped on their way at government-run checkpoints.
By early afternoon, the crowd, dressed in the national colors of blue, red and yellow, had grown and marched through Caracas toward the National Election Council, a body dominated by the government.
“This will be the last conventional protest; the next one will be a surprise one,” said the party’s leader, Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate.
The protest was scheduled for the day that marks the fall of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 amid a popular rebellion and revolt by the navy.
“I thought there would be more people,” said 54-year-old Freddy Cabrices, a member of Capriles’s party who was wearing a baseball cap in the Venezuelan colors. “People have stopped protesting because they’ve become fearful,” he added.
Down the road, another marcher, Eliana Munoz, 47, admitted to being frustrated by the limited progress that the opposition had made.
“We’ve not achieved anything, and people are demotivated,” she said. “I have faith that with Trump [in power] things might change,” she added, referring to the new U.S. president, who has been critical of Maduro’s government.
Maduro was elected in 2013 and has sought to continue the policies of Hugo Chávez, a firebrand populist who became president in 1999 and set Venezuela on a socialist course.
Far from the loud music of the protest, in one of the capital’s nicer neighborhoods, Juan Guillermo Hensbergen, a 70-year-old writer, sat in the morning sun.
“I’ve been to eight marches in three years and I’ve seen no results,” said Hensbergen, sipping a cup of coffee. “People are tired, there are fewer students, and they’re the ones who overthrow governments. People are also fearful.”
Standing outside a barbershop in a crisp blue shirt, 45-year-old film producer Thomas Piedra echoed Hensbergen’s thoughts. “I went to many protests and I’m 100 percent for the opposition,” he said. “[But] I grew tired of the protests because they weren’t going anywhere. We can’t keep marching like sheep.”
“The day I take part in a protest again will be the day we march to Miraflores,” he said in reference to the presidential offices. “The opposition is weak; they don’t have the strength to say enough is enough.”
Leon, the pollster, said the low turnout did not reflect a lack of desire for an alternative to Maduro.
“Those who want change are a majority,” he said, adding that the problem was that “people don’t believe that the opposition coalition has a common aim or strength.”