Venezuelan opposition leader takes campaign to northern city

Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido, sings the national anthem at the end of a rally in Valencia, Venezuela, Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Valencia, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido embarked on a new stage of his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday as the government staged its own rival rally in the capital of Caracas, a pattern which has unfolded repeatedly as both sides attempt to convey strength.

Addressing large crowds in the northern city of Valencia, Guaido pledged to deliver a better life for struggling Venezuelans as he began a planned tour of the country gripped by an economic and political crisis.

“We’re stronger than ever,” said U.S.-backed Guaido from a podium draped with a large Venezuelan flag.

The leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly also drew cheers with his denunciations of Maduro, although he warned that difficult challenges still lay ahead.

Earlier in the day, he visited a cathedral and a market in Valencia, where people flocked to take his picture and shake his hand.

Since returning to Venezuela from a Latin American tour on March 4, Guaido has led anti-government activities in the capital of Caracas and announced plans to take his message to other regions. But he has been unable to force Maduro to step down and hold elections.

On Saturday, the government organized its own flag-waving demonstration in Caracas, which attracted large numbers of people to the street.

Maduro has remained defiant despite heavy pressure from the United States and other countries arrayed against him, managing to retain the loyalty of most of Venezuela’s military leaders.

The latest demonstrations come as the South American country recovers power in many areas after widespread blackouts inflicted misery on millions of people, cutting off running water and communications.

Guaido and the U.S. said corruption and mismanagement by the government caused the outages, while Maduro claimed that the U.S. had launched a “cyberattack” on the national grid in an ongoing attempt to oust him. Maduro has routinely described Guaido as a collaborator in a U.S. coup plot.

Coinciding with the demonstration in Valencia, opposition lawmakers organized smaller anti-government gatherings in the northwest city of Maracaibo, where many areas were devastated by looting during the blackouts.

Guaido declared himself interim president in January, saying Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate because major opposition figures were not allowed to run.