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Venezuela’s Guaidó calls supporters to gather in the midst of a pandemic

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó takes part in a gathering with health-care workers Thursday in Caracas. (Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who could once call hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters to the streets, tried Thursday to hold the first public rallies since the coronavirus pandemic struck the South American country.

The response was subdued. Guaidó, the National Assembly president recognized by the United States as Venezuela’s rightful leader, tweeted photos of small gatherings from four cities, adding up to only several dozen participants — a marked contrast from the mass demonstrations that filled the streets of Caracas and other cities last year. Guaidó himself appeared in the capital.

President Nicolás Maduro “is defeated politically, socially and internationally,” Guaidó said. “Now we have to defeat him on the streets, every day.”

But the limited turnout was another sign of the challenges confronting Guaidó. The 37-year-old lawmaker emerged last year as a unifying figure seen as giving Venezuela’s long-fractious opposition its best chance of ousting the socialist government established by Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez. But a succession of mass protests, an abortive attempt to rally the military to the opposition and inconclusive talks with the government last year yielded little apparent progress.

Venezuela’s Maduro tries to recast his authoritarian image, and Guaidó confronts a rebellion

Now the opposition is fracturing again, divided over Guaidó’s tactics and the question of whether to participate in government-run elections in December.

“There is a disconnect between the political class and the people,” two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said in a live stream on social media last week. In a break with Guaidó, Capriles said he would support candidates in the elections.

Guaidó this week announced an agreement to boycott the elections, a deal to cooperate with the United States against drug trafficking, and the rallies Thursday to support health-care workers.

Venezuela has confirmed more than 56,000 cases and 450 deaths, both believed to be undercounts. The opposition and some local nongovernmental organizations say at least 140 health-care workers have died of covid-19. “Let’s recognize in the streets the work of our heroes,” Guaidó tweeted.

But the idea of encouraging people to gather in the midst of a pandemic drew criticism even from some of his allies. He clarified: “It is not a march, because obviously today we must protect the security of Venezuelans.”

Still, few Venezuelans answered the call. Guaidó appeared at a tribute to the Venezuelan Medical Federation in Caracas. He spoke of the difficulty health-care workers face in a country with acute shortages of medical supplies and medicines, and where humanitarian aid has been politicized.

Maduro has helped to aggravate divisions in the opposition by appearing to soften his authoritarian rule. In recent weeks, he has pardoned more than 100 opposition politicians, releasing several from prison and allowing others to emerge from hiding. His foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, has invited the European Union to send observers to monitor the December elections.

Venezuela’s Maduro pardons more than 100 political opponents ahead of elections

Guaidó and his allies say Maduro’s government can’t be trusted to hold a fair vote. Maduro, chosen by Chavez to succeed him on his death in 2013, claimed victory in a 2018 election widely seen as fraudulent. U.S. officials say they’ll continue to support Guaidó no matter what happens in December.

The coronavirus has deepened misery in a country already struggling under hyperinflation, high unemployment and chronic shortages of food, water, medicines and gasoline. Millions have fled the South American nation, though some have returned during the pandemic.

Analysts questioned Guaidó’s decision to attempt the rallies Thursday.

“Mobilizing people in the face of repression, amid a deadly pandemic, and without a clear sense of a plan is a risky move,” said Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Unless the opposition can spark more enthusiasm around a credible path towards change, it will be difficult to get people to turn out in the streets.”

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