CARACAS, Venezuela — Some stores were closed and traffic was lighter but for the most part residents of Venezuela’s capital ignored calls to stay home Friday to protest President Nicolás Maduro, handing a rare victory to the embattled socialist leader.
The opposition has been stepping up its campaign to force Maduro from office after electoral authorities canceled a recall referendum seeking his removal.
But the 12-hour work stoppage, announced by the opposition during demonstrations across the country this week, was mostly ineffective, with public transport in the capital running and businesses and factories operating at near-normal levels.
“This is a message to the right-wing leaders: Your strike has failed,” said Tareck El Aissami, the pro-government governor of Aragua state. “Nobody is going to support a coup.”
Senior officials have threatened to expropriate businesses that close and major employers insisted the work stoppage was a grassroots protest, not a lockout aimed at sabotaging the already crippled economy.
Some Venezuelans said they couldn’t afford to stay home.
In the opposition’s stronghold of eastern Caracas, young mothers and the elderly standing in a two-hour-long line for food said that Friday was the only day they could hunt for groceries thanks to a rationing system put in place earlier this year that restricts shopping to one day per work week at supermarkets selling food at subsidized prices.
“If I don’t shop, I can’t eat tonight,” said Gipssy Bracho, a 59-year-old retiree.
The stoppage recalled opposition tactics used in 2002 ahead of a coup against then President Hugo Chávez.
But while Chávez is still mostly revered, his hand-picked successor is widely unpopular. Polls show three out of four Venezuelans want Maduro out of office this year, blaming him for the worst economic crisis in decades.
The opposition has called for a march on the presidential palace in the heart of the city on Thursday if the government doesn’t reverse its decision to block the recall effort. It’s also holding a symbolic “political trial” in congress, accusing Maduro of trampling on the constitution and installing a dictatorship.
The government has responded to the strike with a mix of threats and appeals to its base among Venezuela’s workers.
Powerful socialist leader Diosdado Cabello warned that businesses participating in the strike would be expropriated by workers and the military. As if to underscore the risk of reprisals, heavily armed agents from the Sebin political police have been parked since Thursday outside the offices and mansion of Lorenzo Mendoza, the head of Polar, the nation’s largest food manufacturer, who took part in Wednesday’s march.
Andrés Garban, a 24-year-old employee in Polar’s legal department, said he and many of his colleagues came to work against their wishes to protect their jobs.
“They think they own Venezuela,” said Garban, staring at the police adjacent to a beer factory that has been idled for months due to a lack of dollars to purchase imported barley. “I would’ve like to have exercised my civic rights but thanks to the intimidation I had no choice but to come to work.”
On Thursday, Maduro announced he was raising the minimum wage by 40 percent, his fourth such hike this year.
Economists however say that inflation, which the International Monetary Fund forecasts will soar to four digits next year, is running even faster, and the currency’s slide on the widely used black market has depressed the value of the minimum salary in the oil-rich nation to just around $90 a month, one of the lowest in Latin America.