Venezuelan police halt protest march led by opposition leader with teargas

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan security forces used teargas on Tuesday to stop protesters led by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido from marching on the national legislature, which pro-government lawmakers seized control of in January.

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The march, attended by several thousand opposition demonstrators, advanced only a few blocks towards the congress in downtown Caracas before a phalanx of riot police barricaded the road and began firing teargas to disperse the crowd.

“It once again demonstrates the totalitarian nature of this regime,” said lawmaker and Guaido supporter Williams Davila, his face and eyes red from the teargas.

Opposition legislators later held a extramural session in the fashionable Las Mercedes district nearby, setting up chairs on the neighborhood’s main avenue and hanging a large Venezuelan flag as a backdrop.

“We are a powerful majority that can change this country,” said Guaido during the session. “The dictatorship thinks it can take us on, that it can keep us quiet.”

Guaido for weeks had urged Venezuelans to join the march as a way of reviving street protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who Washington has sought to oust through economic sanctions. The protests surged in 2019 but have waned as the ruling Socialist Party has clung to power.

Tuesday’s march was the opposition’s first since Guaido returned on Feb. 11 from a diplomatic tour that included a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. It marked another test of Guaido’s capacity to mobilize supporters, who are increasingly weary with his inability to oust Maduro despite a broad U.S. sanctions program and Venezuela’s long-running economic crisis.

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After the rally, officers from an elite Venezuelan police unit, the Special Action Force, raided a hotel in Caracas and detained three opposition lawmakers staying there, congress said on its Twitter account. Two of the lawmakers were released later that evening, while they said the other remained detained.

One of the released lawmakers, Zandra Castilla, told reporters outside the hotel that officers threatened them, confiscated their phones and told them “here you can’t speak bad about Maduro.”

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not return a request to comment.

Maduro’s government held its own separate rallies in downtown Caracas on Tuesday that were attended by hundreds of red-shirted supporters.

“I don’t miss a single march, even if I’m tired or sick,” said Maria Isabel Luna, 62, a homemaker.

A group of legislators backed by the Socialist Party installed themselves as leaders of congress in January after troops blocked Guaido from attending a session in which he was expected to be elected to a second term as assembly head.

Opposition lawmakers later re-elected Guaido, but they have been largely unable to meet at the legislative palace, once home to the only branch of government beyond Maduro’s control.

More than 50 countries last year recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president following Maduro’s disputed 2018 re-election, which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Venezuela this year is slated to hold parliamentary elections, but the opposition has not determined if it will participate due to concerns over free and fair conditions.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas and Shaylim Valderrama; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Tom Brown and Sam Holmes