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World

Dueling Demonstrations In Venezuela

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to Venezuela, where most of the country has been in the dark. At a rally in Caracas yesterday, President Nicolas Maduro blamed the ongoing power outage on the United States, alleging it sabotaged the grid. The Trump Administration denies it, pointing the finger at the regime's incompetence. At a rival demonstration, opposition leader Juan Guaido called for regular protests to oust Maduro. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves in Caracas on the political crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBIKES RUMBLING)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hundreds of men on motorbikes streamed through the heart of Caracas. Nicolas Maduro is flexing his muscles. These men are known as colectivos - armed pro-government paramilitaries, widely feared by Venezuelans because of their use of violence and intimidation. They're heading towards a pro-Maduro rally near the presidential palace close by. Mercedes Guedes is on her way to the rally. She's a community leader with the ruling Socialist Party.

MERCEDES GUEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: And, she says, an ardent believer in Maduro. Maduro is Venezuela's only president, she says. The fact that opposition leader Juan Guaido is recognized as the legitimate head of state by more than 50 nations, including the U.S., means nothing to her.

GUEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "That's like me suddenly calling myself the queen of England," says Guedes. Her faith in Maduro remains intact despite what's happening all around her. Caracas is in the grips of the longest power outage anyone here can remember. It started Thursday, reportedly because of major breakdowns at the country's main hydroelectric plant. The subway is closed, so are most shops and businesses. The mobile phone networks have mostly crashed. Many here blame this on Venezuela's collapsing infrastructure caused by years of government corruption and mismanagement. Guedes takes a different view.

GUEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She thinks it's sabotage by the opposition and its chief sponsor, the United States, as part of the effort to drive Maduro out of power. As Guedes walks off, an elderly man who's been listening to all this chips in. Hugo Sanchez is a retired waiter. Don't listen to her, he says.

HUGO SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Venezuelans are starving. There's no medicine, no work, no food, he says.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: Venezuela's deep divisions were on display on the streets yesterday. While Maduro's rally was underway, a sea of people walked through Caracas, heading for a demonstration called by his rival Guaido. Police and soldiers in riot gear were out in force blocking roads. That doesn't stop a huge crowd from gathering to greet Guaido.

(CHEERING)

REEVES: More than six weeks have elapsed since Guaido announced he's Venezuela's interim president and plans to establish a transitional government and hold new - and this time fair - elections. Venezuela's economy has continued to collapse. The U.S. sanctions mean Maduro's government's lost a crucial chunk of its income. Despite all this, Maduro is believed to feel confident Guaido's challenge will eventually fade away. Guaido's supporters are getting frustrated.

NELA GARCIA: We feel that, you know, nothing is happening. What else do we need to take this government out?

REEVES: Nela Garcia is a designer. She says she's spent years opposing Venezuela's socialists and won't stop now, yet she worries.

GARCIA: This is going to end ugly. It's going to be ugly at the end.

REEVES: Do you have family and kids?

GARCIA: I have two kids. My daughter that is now living here, she has a kid. And she's pregnant. And, I mean, she can't live a life - you know, a quiet life. She's always worried. Now we don't have light. We don't have water. So it's very hard to live here with all these, you know, situations.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.