CARACAS — Security forces fired tear gas on Wednesday to block an intended march by protesters demanding a recall referendum to end Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist rule.
In the third opposition rally in a week, several thousand protesters descended on downtown Caracas, witnesses said, planning to march to the national election board’s headquarters.
But National Guard soldiers and police cordoned off the square where they planned to meet, so protesters milled instead in nearby streets waving flags and chanting anti-Maduro slogans.
Security forces used tear gas to control about 100 protesters in one street, witnesses said.
“They’re scared. Venezuelans are tired, hungry,” said demonstrator Alfredo González, 76, who wore a scarf over his mouth and said he had been sprayed with pepper gas.
An anti-Maduro demonstration last Wednesday also turned violent, with troops using tear gas to quell stone-throwing protesters and an officer pepper-spraying opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Maduro, a 53-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won election to replace the late Hugo Chávez in 2013, accuses Capriles and other opposition leaders of seeking a coup with the help of the United States.
The opposition coalition, capitalizing on popular discontent over the OPEC nation’s economic crisis, won control of the National Assembly in December elections.
But all the legislature’s measures have been shot down by the government-leaning Supreme Court.
The opposition wants a recall referendum against Maduro this year in order force a new presidential election. But ruling Socialist Party officials say there is no time to organize such a vote this year and the election board is dragging its feet over the complicated procedure.
Should Maduro lose a referendum next year, his vice president — currently Socialist Party stalwart Aristóbulo Istúriz — would take over.
Beyond the opposition’s formal protest campaign, spontaneous street protests and looting are becoming more common around Venezuela amid worsening food shortages, frequent power and water cuts, and inflation that is the highest in the world.
During the weekend, Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency, widening his powers to sidestep the legislature, intervene in the economy and control the streets, because of what he called U.S. and domestic plots against him.
Protester José Alirio, 48, said he had been a supporter of Chávez but was angry at Maduro. “The bread shops are empty,” said Alirio, a bus conductor. “I’m close to robbing. This man has to fix things or he should go.”
Authorities also closed subway stations in Caracas on Wednesday in another measure to impede the protesters.