An ultimatum for El Presidente

Every Saturday morning begins for Antonio Contreras and his sister Andreina Teran with a trek down the winding stairs that separate the tightly packed brick homes in their working class neighbourhood of Cotiza in northern Caracas. They are in search of the nearest working tap.

Water in this area, once loyal to Hugo Chavez and his “Bolivarian revolution” that swept Venezuela 20 years ago, was cut off long ago as infrastructure and the economy spectacularly collapsed. “The tap in here is just like a decoration now,” said Mr Contreras, breathing heavily after the hike back up the hill and stairs for what would be the second of three trips today alone.

Despite widespread suffering, food shortages and a mass exodus, Nicolas Maduro, the country’s unpopular president, has clung to power by banning, arresting, and forcing his most prominent political opponents into exile.

Hope for an end to his rule gripped the country last week with the symbolic swearing-in of an “interim president” amid mass protests following an unlikely uprising in Cotiza, one of the regime’s forgotten heartlands.

“Back in the times of Chavez, this was unthinkable, not having water for whole years,” Mr Contreras, 20, said, before adding that he was now, like many, throwing his support behind the new shadow government bidding to topple Maduro.

Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly, is the man who has stepped up as self-declared interim leader, pushing for protests and calling for Maduro to go.

Dozens of countries have said they now recognise Mr Guaido as the country’s interim leader. At a UN Security Council special meeting, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, urged all nations to “stand with the forces of freedom”.

Russia, one of Maduro’s last key allies, blocked a Security Council statement that would have offered “full support to Guaido” and called the National Assembly that he leads “Venezuela’s only democratically elected institution”.

At one of many public appearances last week Guaido told his supporters: “Up there in the presidential palace, they think we’re going to tire.” But he also admits that to wrestle the presidential sash from Maduro he will need the armed forces to turn on their commander-in-chief. He hopes places like Cotiza, areas traditionally supportive of Maduro’s socialists, but feeling the acute effects of the crisis, will help him convince the authorities to turn their backs on their leader.

Monday gave him hope. In an operation before dawn, a group of national guardsman had taken a captain captive and stolen a handful of weapons, driven across Caracas, and attempted to raid the national guard barracks in the neighbourhood, only 3km from the Miraflores presidential palace.

Woken by the commotion, the local community took to the streets to support the attempted mutiny. “I started hearing gunshots at 4am,” a police officer told reporters yesterday, yards from where the mutiny happened.

“I thought in that moment, that things might actually change here,” recalled the 22-year-old, who asked for her name not to be published for fear of reprisals.

In the lower ranks of the police force, officers yearn for a change, she said, and morale is worse than ever thanks to wages ravaged by inflation, predicted by the IMF to reach 10 million per cent this year.

“But we just don’t say anything because we need the job,” she said. “The day I speak out will be the day I leave the country.” Polls show Maduro maintains 20pc support despite the meltdown.

“These guys have to go,” he said. “But I won’t be participating in anything. The army will decide what happens here, and those who expose themselves will be jailed or get killed.”

On Monday, as tear gas wafted through the streets and into windows after a swift backlash from the authorities, locals held wet clothes to their faces to reduce the sting.

Many in Cotiza and beyond worry that as the walls close in, Maduro could turn to increasingly violent measures to repress protests and silence dissent. According to some local NGOs, up to two dozen have already died in violent night-time protests in four days. During massive anti-government protests in 2017, nearly 130 died and thousands were arrested. Authorities have arrested nearly 400 in the past three days, according to Penal Forum, an NGO monitoring detentions. Four of those arrested were in the Cotiza neighbourhood during the protests in support of the military rebellion.

Among them was David Martinez, 28, whose mother Yelitza Martinez waited for a ride to deliver food to him in the Caracas jail early yesterday morning.

“Everyone is just so tired of this whole situation,” she said. “We want a change and we want it fast.”

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