CARACAS, VENEZUELA - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has seen an ally forced from office and protests rattle leaders across Latin America in recent weeks, while he has enjoyed a period of relatively smooth sailing, expounding his socialist dream in nightly television addresses and attending international conferences.
But opposition leader Juan Guaido is determined to disturb Maduro's comfort, and has called on Venezuelans across the crisis-torn nation to flood the streets Saturday for protests nearly a year after he launched his campaign to push Maduro from power.
``We don't have a choice,'' Guaido told a rally this week, saying the circumstances were dire. ``The alternative for this situation today is death. We want to live.''
Test of his appeal
Guaido's renewed call will test his ability to draw out masses, despite shrinking crowds rallying around him in recent months in a sign of disillusionment.
Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said a lot of people will be watching closely to gauge Guaido's ability to inspire, especially at home in Venezuela.
``Guaido is under increasing pressure from within his coalition to present a realistic path forward,'' Ramsey said. ``There's a lot riding on this.''
Guaido's call for renewed protests in Venezuela came as political turmoil embroils governments across the region, from Chile to Ecuador to Bolivia, forcing presidents into concessions and even contributing to one's departure. Bolivia's President Evo Morales abruptly resigned and fled into exile in Mexico.
While all this happened, Maduro traveled to Azerbaijan for an international conference and even enjoyed a small bump in crude production after years of crashing levels and bad news for the oil-rich nation.
Assumption of power
Guaido, 36, leaped to the center of Venezuela's political fray when the opposition-led National Assembly appointed him as its leader. On Jan. 23, he declared that he was assuming presidential powers. He vowed to remove Maduro and hold new elections.
The United States was first among a steadily growing list of more than 50 nations and international bodies to endorse Guaido. They say Maduro clings to power following a sham election in 2018. They accuse him of human rights violations and failed economic policies that have bankrupted Venezuela.
That nation sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, but production has been down for two decades. Production made a rare uptick in October, according to OPEC figures, showing the first increase in six months. Still, oil pumping is at the same level Venezuela last produced in 1944.
Most Venezuelans earn minimum wage, which equals less than $15 a month, and inflation this year is estimated to hit 200,000%. Millions live with unreliable water supplies and constant power outages, and drivers wait in mile-long lines to gas up their cars.
Guaido has held numerous events in recent days, reminding residents that these conditions aren't normal. He's visited neighborhoods and talked with university students, urging their return to the street. The opposition published ``Wakeup Venezuela!'' videos on social media promoting the march.
Guaido rejected claims that disillusionment will prevent Venezuelans from heeding his call come Saturday, saying he's defied doubters before.
``Nobody believed in Venezuela on the 23rd of January,'' Guaido told The Associated Press. ``Today, Venezuela is even clearer about its future.''
James Story, charge d' affaires for the Venezuela Affairs Unit of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, said Friday that officials knew going in that forcing Maduro from power would not quick or easy. But he said Guaido continues to have unwavering support from the U.S., the international community and, more important, from Venezuelans.
``When he travels throughout the country, the people always respond,'' Story said in conference call with reporters. ``He's going to get the same kind of response tomorrow.''
Bolivia's crisis is likely serving as a case study for both Maduro and Guaido, analysts say. Morales, a longtime socialist ally of Maduro, fled to exile in Mexico when a general ``suggested'' he step down, after irregularities in the election that he claimed gave him a fourth term.
However, Maduro has diligently cultivated Venezuela's generals, who have remained loyal, even as Guaido early in the campaign pushed to flip the soldiers against Maduro and later mounted a failed military uprising.
The government plans to counter Saturday's opposition demonstration. The socialist party has called its own rival rally. Maduro beefed up security, ordering civilian militias to patrol the streets.
Police clashed with students at a Caracas university following a speech by Guaido. Dozens of students offered the police white roses and urged them to abandon Maduro. The students then tried to charge the police line and threw rocks, drawing pepper spray and tear gas in return.
Exiting a Caracas subway, shop owner Jose Buitrago, 53, said he's fed up watching relatives leave Venezuela. He complained of living with a painful hernia while the broken health care system deprives him of a simple operation.
``The time has come for us to go out to fight, because this can't stand anymore,'' said Buitrago, who plans to protest on Saturday and said he hoped other Venezuelans would join him.