CARACAS, Venezuela — Tens of thousands of demonstrators shut down Caracas’ main highway, and schools and shops were closed as protesters occupied other key points around the city to demand the ouster of Maduro, who many Venezuelans blame for triple-digit inflation and shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods.
In other major cities protesters clashed with police in what opposition leaders were calling “the takeover of Venezuela.”
“Maduro has shown how scared he is that the people will express themselves,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.
The protests come after electoral authorities blocked a recall campaign against the deeply unpopular president last week. The face-off escalated on Tuesday when the opposition-led legislature voted to put Maduro on trial, accusing him of staging a coup.
Opposition legislators argued that Venezuela’s leader has effectively abandoned the presidency by neglecting his job. Several also questioned whether he was a dual Colombian national and therefore ineligible to hold Venezuela’s highest office — an old, unproven claim.
Government supporters staged a much smaller rally attended by Maduro downtown.
Opposition leaders ended Wednesday’s national day of protest with call for a general strike on Friday. They also threatened to march on the presidential palace in the heart of the city on Nov. 3 if the government doesn’t reverse its decision to block the recall effort.
The opposition has not been allowed to protest in front of the presidential palace since a massive march held there helped precipitate a short-lived coup against former President Hugo Chavez in 2002.
Congress was expected to take up the issue of Maduro’s responsibility for the country’s worsening political and economic crisis Thursday. The result of that debate is unlikely to have much impact, however.
Unlike other countries in Latin America such as Brazil — where Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency in August — Venezuela’s National Assembly can’t impeach the president, that power lies with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro.
Even as tempers flare, the government and opposition have agreed on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis.
Talks sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments are set to begin Sunday in the Caribbean island of Margarita. Maduro, who met with Pope Francis privately at the Vatican on Monday, said he will travel to Margarita to personally launch the talks.
But the two sides have tried dialogue during previous crises, and the opposition has scant hope for a breakthrough. Although Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their economic woes the ruling party is in firm control of institutions like the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.
On Wednesday, Maduro convened a meeting of the heads of all the country’s major institutions and said he lamented that Congress’ President Henry Ramos had decided not to attend. Maduro went on to call for national unity.
“I’m very sorry that the congress president continues to show contempt for the constitution, and doesn’t want to enter into dialogue,” he said. “I want everyone to behave reasonably and know that we are all Venezuelans.”