CARACAS, VENEZUELA – Venezuelan opposition protests began and foreign pressure mounted on Friday over a court takeover of Congress that many viewed as a lurch into dictatorship by a leftist government grappling with a plunge in popularity.
The court move brought condemnations and concern from the United States, Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, major Latin American nations and the top U.N. human rights official.
Ally Russia, however, bucked the trend in a statement on Friday urging the world to leave Venezuela alone.
"External forces should not add fuel to the fire to the conflict inside Venezuela," it said. "We are confident in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs."
President Nicolas Maduro accuses Washington of leading a push to topple him as part of a wider offensive against leftist governments in Latin America. Brazil, Argentina and Peru have all moved to the right recently.
However, new U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have other priorities or has not yet fully formed policy on Venezuela.
"We will not accept usurpation by the Supreme Court," said a student group in Caracas marching to the nation's top tribunal which has assumed the functions of the opposition-led National Assembly.
Elsewhere, protesters blocked a main Caracas motorway, joined by opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro.
"We mustn't give up or stop, we have to demand our rights," he said.
Having already shot down most of the National Assembly's measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro court this week said it was assuming the legislature's functions because it was in "contempt" of the law.
Outraged foes of President Nicolas Maduro accused him of staging a "coup" against an elected body. Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and self-declared "son" of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected in 2013.
OAS head Luis Almagro, whom the Venezuelan government views as a pawn of Washington, has been pushing for its suspension from the 34-nation regional bloc and wants an emergency meeting after the latest developments.
But suspension appears unlikely, diplomats say, given Venezuela's support from other leftist governments and small nations who have benefited from its oil largesse, and anyway it would only be a symbolic sanction, albeit a strong one.
"It's false there has been a coup d'etat in Venezuela," Venezuela's foreign ministry said, alleging a regional right-wing conspiracy against it.
"On the contrary, institutions have adopted legal correctives to stop the deviant and coup-seeking actions of opposition parliamentarians openly in contempt of decisions by the republic's maximum tribunal."
Venezuela's opposition Democratic Unity coalition, made up of about two dozen parties and groups, declared itself in "permanent session" and promised rolling street protests.
But the coalition is hobbled by disunity: leaders called at least four separate news conferences on Friday.
Opposition supporters are also acutely aware, however, that street tactics have failed on numerous occasions.
Vast rallies in 2002 helped briefly topple Chavez, but he was back about 36 hours later after his supporters poured onto the street and military factions came to his aid.
In 2014, hardline opposition activists led months of protests, but they turned violent and led to 43 deaths, their leader Leopoldo Lopez was jailed, and Maduro consolidated power.
Then last year, hundreds of thousands marched at various times, but still authorities thwarted the opposition's push for a referendum to recall Maduro and also postponed local elections.
The opposition is hoping the military - whose top ranks still pledge absolute loyalty to Maduro though there is believed to be dissent lower down - may nudge him into bringing forward a presidential election slated for the end of 2018.
But there is no public sign of that happening.
"Given that the government controls all the state's institutions, including the armed forces, the security apparatus is likely to strongly repress protesters with opposition leaders facing higher detention risks," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the IHS Markit consultancy.
The Supreme Court's contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though they no longer sit in Congress, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case legally.
Maduro came to power with around 50 percent popularity ratings but has seen that halved as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of basic food and medicines and the highest inflation in the world.
Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says foes are carrying out an "economic war" against Maduro. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.