CARACAS, Venezuela -Venezuelans took to the streets for lunch hour protests on Wednesday, forming pockets of resistance outside military bases and on main streets across the country as the opposition movement seeks to force embattled President Nicolas Maduro to hand over power to an interim government.
Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela's interim president last week and won backing from most Western governments, convened the protest and appeared as the demonstrations were wrapping up in Caracas' Central University.
"Let's keep protesting," he told the crowd of students, doctors, and nurses. "Let's keep taking the streets.
Maduro has sought to neutralize Guaidó by ordering him not to leave the country and freezing his assets. The government has also responded to his challenge by cracking down on rebellious neighborhoods, trying to preserve an autocratic, socialist-style system increasingly imperiled by deep unpopularity and foreign pressure.
Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly, seemed undeterred on Wednesday.
"At this moment I'm not worried about the prohibition to leave the country. What worries me is that Venezuelans are able to come back to the country," Guaidó told reporters that were covering the protest. "We have the backing of Trump and many European leaders...I'm willing to do anything that is necessary for humanitarian aid to come in."
The protests Wednesday were far smaller than the massive outpouring over the weekend and the government repression in recent days may have discouraged a broader attendance.
Over the past week, 35 people have died in protests - most shot by security forces as they took part in late night pot-banging demonstrations in slums, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. More than 800 people have been detained, according to the legal aid group Foro Penal.
In past protests, it's been common for security forces to fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. That didn't happen on Wednesday and some analysts saw that as the result of the more cautious approach by Maduro.
"I think participation was good. To repress now is a risk for the government," said Felix Seijas, a political analyst and head of the Delphos polling agency.
A larger protest is planned for this Saturday.
The Trump administration is leading an international campaign to drive the leftist Venezuelan leader from power, embracing Guaidó's arguments that Maduro began a second term after an election riddled with fraud and years of authoritarian rule that have plunged this oil-rich country into an economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
Maduro has relied on the support of the powerful armed forces to stay in office, and on Wednesday, he attended military exercises in the morning. As the protests were starting, state television reported the launch of a new government social program to improve public spaces.
"We want to construct a more beautiful Venezuela," Maduro said in a nationwide address announcing the program.
Maduro and his supporters have waved away the European Union's demand that Maduro accept presidential elections by this weekend or the E.U. will recognize Guaidó as president.
One of Maduro's most prominent supporters, Diosdado Cabello, said in a speech Wednesday that the only elections the government is considering are for National Assembly, currently the only opposition-controlled body in Venezuela.
"Militia members, members of the police and the armed forces, wherever we have to mobilize to defend the homeland, we will," Cabello said.
In Caracas, where supplies of food, medicine and electrical power have shriveled in the past few years, residents expressed frustration with the government, but some were wary about joining protests because of possible violence.
Outside the José Manuel de los Rios Hospital in northwest Caracas, about 100 employees filled the street, chanting and waving signs, as dozens of police officers looked on.
"I'm here because I'm in a hospital where my patients are dying. We have nothing," said 26-year-old radiology technician Haberlyn Mejia. "I hope there's a profound change in my country. We need it urgently."
The crowd shouted, "Families and patients, the people are present."
In the western commercial area of La Candelaria, dozens of demonstrators gathered in the street and urged others to join. "People, listen, join this fight," they shouted, holding signs that read "Humanitarian aid now." Maduro has rejected most offers of international food and medical aid.
Rafael Tafuro, 65, a carpenter who was waiting for the subway in eastern Caracas on Wednesday morning, said that "of course" he would take part in the demonstrations.
"Do you think what we're living isn't enough?" he said. "I protest because of everything. I haven't had work in a year. I'm a carpenter. Materials are way too expensive, and no one has money to pay for my services."
But Lasmick Valverde, a 19-year-old accounting student, said he would not join the demonstrations. "I'm too scared something will happen to me," he said. "I support what they're doing, but I don't like protests."
Earlier Wednesday, Maduro issued a new offer of dialogue to the opposition while warning the American people that intervening in his country could create a new Vietnam-style quagmire.
Guaidó did not respond to the dialogue offer, the latest effort by Maduro to open talks with the opposition. The offer was immediately praised by Russia and drew a tweet from President Trump, who said it came after increased U.S. pressure on the Venezuelan government and economy. The reactions highlighted how the fight for power in the South American country has taken on the overtones of a superpower rivalry.
Trump for the first time spoke directly to Guaidó in a phone call Wednesday, expressing his "strong support for Venezuela's fight to regain its democracy," according to a White House statement.
In an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that aired Wednesday, Maduro said he has sent letters to the governments of Bolivia, Mexico, Russia and Uruguay to involve them in a new process of dialogue with the opposition.
At the same time, he issued a video message directed at the American people, asserting that the Trump administration is trying to carry out a coup d'etat in Venezuela that he said would be disastrous.
The United States wants "to put their hands on our oil like they did in Iraq, like they did in Libya," Maduro added.
"I ask for the support of the people of the United States so that there is not a new Vietnam," he said in the video posted on Facebook.
Russia, which has been Maduro's most vocal international supporter and is a major investor in Venezuela, praised his willingness to negotiate with the U.S.-backed opposition.
"The fact that President Maduro is open to dialogue with the opposition deserves high praise," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in a phone call.
In an early morning tweet soon after, Trump seemed to suggest that Maduro's offer of dialogue was prompted by "U.S. sanctions and the cutting off of oil revenue." He said a "massive protest" was expected Wednesday.
The Venezuelan Journalists Union reported Wednesday that two French journalists and their Venezuelan producer were detained a day earlier and were in custody at the presidential palace in central Caracas.
On Tuesday evening, four journalists - two Venezuelans and two Chileans - were also detained. They were picked up near the presidential palace, where they were covering a small pro-government demonstration.
The Venezuelans were released 10 hours later. The Chileans, Rodrigo Perez and Gonzalo Barhona of TVN, were also released and were waiting to be deported on an evening flight.
The detentions come as the government is increasingly intimidating journalists and warning radio stations not to transmit opposition rallies or speeches.
Authorities intensified pressure on the opposition Tuesday with a request by the chief prosecutor to freeze Guaidó's assets and bar him from leaving the country. The request was later ratified by the loyalist Supreme Court pending a full investigation. The move stopped short of a detention order - something the Trump administration has strongly warned against.
Speaking at the National Assembly, Guaidó dismissed the move as "nothing new under the sun." The United States strongly criticized the chief prosecutor's effort.
"Let me reiterate - there will be serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaidó," White House national security adviser John Bolton wrote on Twitter.
The United States on Monday targeted the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), which is a major contributor to Venezuela's economy. The U.S. move freezes $7 billion in U.S.-based assets and blocks more than $11 billion in revenue that Venezuela would receive from oil sales next year through its U.S.-based company, Citgo, which owns three refineries in the United States and employs thousands of workers.
In his interview Wednesday with Russian media, Maduro said the decision violates international law.
"It is an unlawful decision in a bid to expropriate a Venezuelan asset, a Venezuelan company," he said.
The Treasury Department said the money would go to a fund that a transitional government headed by Guaidó could eventually access.
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Krygier reported from Miami. The Washington Post's William Branigin, Anne Gearan, Paul Sonne and Joshua Partlow contributed from Washington. The Post's Amie Ferris-Rotman contributed from Moscow and The Post's Paul Schemm from Addis Ababa.
Video: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro released a video Jan. 30, accusing the Trump administration of trying to stage a coup d'etat in Venezuela. (Nicolás Maduro/Facebook) https://wapo.st/2sSutF6