Caracas, Venezuela – The streets of Caracas started to fill up around 8 a.m. Thursday with thousands of government opponents demanding a recall election for President Nicolas Maduro.
The so-called “Caracas Takeover” rally was meticulously planned by the opposition as a last-ditch effort to force authorities to call a referendum before the year ends — otherwise Chavismo could stay in power until 2019.
The packed crowd filled dozens of city blocks.
Hours before the demonstration, the government deployed military forces in the periphery of Caracas in an attempt to block the entry of busloads of protesters coming from other regions and cities.
There were no immediate reports of violence, but tension was building since dawn and was expected to continue through the night.
Venezuela claims U.S. and opposition forces are plotting coup to overthrow Maduro
Tension mounts across Venezuela as protesters gear up for Sept. 1 anti-Maduro rally
Mom of man jailed in Venezuela struggling to cope: 'Right now, my life is about him'
Iranian minister's trip to Cuba, Latin America raises concern about its influence in region
Venezuela's socialist leaders show oversized taste for Swiss watches
Opinion: Venezuela’s recall law, concocted by Hugo Chavez, is not a simple vote
Venezuelan students struggle to learn amid food shortages and violence
123,000 Venezuelans cross border to Colombia looking for food
High-profile meeting between Venezuela and Iran should set off alarm bells, experts say
Venezuelan women opting for sterilization to avoid cost of pregnancy, raising kids
The government held its own demonstration and raised a giant effigy to Chavez to rally backers.
President Maduro showed up at the competing rally and mocked what he said was a low turnout of around 30,000 people for the opposition-organized protest. Opposition organizers say the turnout was much higher.
In the days and hours leading up to the rally, there were reports of dozens of arrests.
According to Foro Penal, a non-governmental organization, 37 people were arrested in the last 48 hours. In addition, two mayors of the Guarico region informed via Twitter that they had been arrested by Sebin, the Intelligence Agency, in the early hours of Thursday.
Sin mediar palabra con gas lacrimógeno PNB, repele exigencia de zulianos al libre tránsito cerca de túnel la Cabrera pic.twitter.com/wqdMgm2Krt
— Juan Pablo Guanipa (@JuanPGuanipa) 1 de septiembre de 2016
Despite the new wave of detentions and the threats, government opponents filled up the seven concentration points set by the rally organizers and before noon were moving toward three unspecified destinations. They plan to fill up three of the city’s largest avenues, all located east of the city.
Protesters from all over the country arrived to Unicentro El Marques, a concentration point near the popular segment of Petare.
Some groups arrived to the concentration points playing music and animating the crowd; many political leaders picked up the microphone to deliver political messages.
“We came from Anzoategui in a bus with a group of 30 people,” Naibe Peaspan told Fox News Latino.
“We had to go through eight military checkpoints and the trip took more than 10 hours when it normally takes four,” added Rosma Rios, who was with Peaspan.
Despite the hard conditions, people were pumped up and screaming slogans like “Revocatorio ya!” (Referendum Now!) and “Este gobierno va a caer” (The government will fall).
“I come to protest for my sons and to recover democracy and liberty,” said Grimaldo Lopez, a 52 years-old protestor from Petare.
“I am not scared about coming out today. Hunger and crime are scarier,” he added.
In the rally some public employees were also participating, despite President Maduro´s threat to fire those who opposed his government. One of them was Joama Castillo, who works at the public TV channel Colombeia TV.
“I signed for the referendum and will sign again," she said. "If they fire me, their dictatorship will be confirmed.”
As the demonstration wrapped up in the early afternoon, protesters vowed to return to the streets in a few days.
Jesus Torrealba, of the Democratic Unity alliance, announced a new show of force Sept. 7, when they will march to the offices of the pro-government electoral council in cities across the country.
"Today is the beginning of the final stage of our fight," he told supporters.
The AP contributed to this report.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.