Venezuela's political standoff deepened Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in several cities and opposition leaders called for a general strike later this week. At one of the demonstrations in Venezuelan capital Caracas, Jesus Torrealba, secretary general of the opposition party, announced the 12-hour strike for Friday as another attempt to hold President Nicolas Maduro responsible for his handling of the country's severe economic downturn.
"Everyone stay home," he said to applause from the crowd. An estimate from opposition activists put the turnout at the rally in Caracas at around 1.2 million people, the largest of any in the country. Maduro and his supporters also held a much smaller rally in downtown Caracas Wednesday before meeting with his National Defense Council later in the day.
After the meeting, Maduro gave a nationally televised speech in which he called for "political dialogue and peace in Venezuela." Some schools and shops were closed Wenesday in Caracas as demonstrators marched toward key points around the city to back a recall campaign against President Nicolas Maduro.
Across the country, at least 140 people were arrested by police, according to the Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal. A police officer was shot and killed and three other people were shot during protests in the northwestern city of Maracaibo.
Electoral authorities blocked the recall last week, and the faceoff escalated Tuesday when the opposition-led legislature voted to hold a political trial of the president, accusing him of violating constitutional order. Such a trial would have little legal effect because Venezuela's constitution does not give congress power to oust the president.
The protests are the first such mass gatherings since September 1, when hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied Venezuelans marched through Caracas in opposition to Maduro. Both sides have accused each other of attempting to launch a coup as the country grapples with massive food shortages and soaring inflation.
Polls show around 75 percent of Venezuelans want to see Maduro removed from power and blame him for the collapse in the country’s standard of living, though he has called the economic collapse a capitalist conspiracy.
Speaking at a rally Tuesday to thousands of his supporters, Maduro said opposition lawmakers were acting like members of a “circus” with their attempts to remove him. “The National Assembly has been transformed into a bastion of evil and bitterness. It is useless to the interests of our country and our people,” he said. Maduro controls the Supreme Court, and it has already declared the National Assembly to be illegitimate.
Despite the growing tensions, Pope Francis met privately Maduro at the Vatican on Monday and urged him to spark a meaningful dialogue with opposition leaders. The Vatican said Pope Francis urged Maduro to promote a social cohesion to help Venezuela recover from its recent economic crisis. The talks between Maduro and the opposition are scheduled to begin Sunday on the island of Margarita.