CARACAS: Doctors in scrubs, businessmen in suits and construction workers in jeans gathered on the streets of Venezuela's capital Wednesday, waving their nation's flag and demanding Nicolas Maduro step down from power in a walkout organized by the nation's reinvigorated opposition to ratchet up pressure on the embattled president.
Protesters said they were heeding the opposition's call for another mass demonstration despite the heavy-handed response by security forces over the last week to quell anti-government protests.
"I'm going out now more than ever," said Sobeia Gonzalez, 63. "We have a lot more faith that this government has very little time left."
The latest walkout comes one week exactly after opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the nation's rightful president amid a sea of supporters, hurling the nation into a new chapter of political tumult as the anti-Maduro movement tries to establish a transitional government and the socialist leader clings to power.
"We are staying in the streets," Guaido told students at a surprise appearance at the Central University of Venezuela. "Not just in protest of the crisis we are living in all of Venezuela, not just because of how bad things are, but also for the future."
The 35-year-lawmaker has transformed from a little-known opposition figure into a commanding force in the nation's politics with the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump and two dozen other nations recognizing him as Venezuela's interim president.
The turmoil has morphed into a larger geopolitical standoff as Maduro accuses the U.S. of orchestrating a coup by backing Guaido and enacting punishing oil sanctions while powerful Venezuela allies China and Russia continue to stand by the president.
On Tuesday, the government-stacked Supreme Court barred Guaido from leaving the country and froze his bank accounts as a probe into his anti-government activities led by Maduro-ally and chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab advances. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned that if Guaido is harmed Venezuela will face "serious consequences."
Guaido has thus far managed to avoid arrest and the Supreme Court did not strip him of his legislative immunity, though the new investigation could signal that Maduro's administration is moving to take a more punitive approach in the days ahead.
Speaking at the walkout, Guaido said he wasn't losing any sleep over the probe. "We don't want to leave the country," he said. "We want people to return."
Maduro huddled Wednesday with military troops, prayed with evangelical supporters and released a video urging the American people to rise up against Trump and support him as Venezuela's rightful leader. He said Trump has his eyes on Venezuela's vast oil reserves and warned against any U.S. military intervention.
"We won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America," Maduro said. "If the aim of the United States is to invade, they'll have a Vietnam worse than can be imagined."
Maduro has been overseeing military training exercises broadcast on state television on a near-daily basis over the past week in an apparent attempt to show he still has the backing of the armed forces, whose support is key to either man's claim to the presidency.
In an interview with Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Maduro said he was "willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela's peace and its future," an offer he has repeated often but that the opposition is reluctant to accept. He also accused Trump of ordering a hit on him from Colombia but offered no proof.
The already distressed nation is likely to face even tougher times ahead after the U.S. imposed sanctions Monday on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, potentially depriving the Maduro government of $11 billion in export revenues over the next year.
Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and vowed to challenge the U.S. in court.
Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido declared during a huge opposition rally in Caracas that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro's "dictatorship."
Under Venezuela's constitution, the head of the National Assembly is empowered to take on the duties of the chief executive under a range of circumstances in which the presidency is vacated. The opposition argues Maduro's re-election last May was a sham.
The U.N. human rights office says security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government protests last week — the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years — and that more than 40 people were killed.
Maduro's allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.
Guaido called on Venezuelans to take to the streets Wednesday holding signs stating "your reasons for fighting" and urging the armed forces to join them.
"I want a free Venezuela," several protesters in the Chacao district of the capital wrote on their signs as passing cars and trucks honked their horns in support. Others chanted, "Maduro is a delinquent, not a president!"
Among those protesting was Dr. Hugo Rosillo, who stood outside a children's hospital just blocks from Maduro's presidential palace. He said he and others were fed up with not being able to treat their patients facing life-threatening illnesses like cancer.
He said the hospital has turned into just "a storeroom for cadavers."