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article imageGuaido calls for march on Caracas as Venezuela blackout drags on

By Maria Isabel SANCHEZ (AFP)     Mar 9, 2019 in World

Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro grappled Sunday with a crippling power outage and mounting protests as a top White House aide said members of the country's military were talking about possibly shifting allegiance to the opposition.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido has called for a nationwide march on Caracas to crank up the pressure on Maduro, as the country entered its fourth day largely without power.

The massive blackout in the oil-rich but economically troubled South American nation has intensified the political standoff between Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela's leader by more than 50 countries, and Maduro, who is clinging to power.

No national data was available about the impact of the power outage, but an NGO said at least 15 patients with advanced kidney disease died after they stopped receiving dialysis treatments in darkened hospitals.

In Washington, National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested members of the Venezuelan military were reconsidering their support for Maduro.

"There are countless conversations going on between members of the National Assembly and members of the military in Venezuela, talking about what might come, how they might move to support the opposition," Bolton said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."

He said one reason the security forces have refrained from arresting Guaido "is Maduro fears if he gave that order, it would not be obeyed."

Asked if he was certain Maduro was on his way out, Bolton said, "I'm not certain of anything, but I do think Guaido has the momentum."

The military's high command has repeatedly declared absolute loyalty to Maduro, but desertions of enlisted soldiers and lower-ranking officers have been on the rise.

As night fell Saturday, much of the country was still without power. Businesses remained shut, hospitals struggled to operate, and public transport barely functioned.

The 35-year-old Guaido, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, earlier told thousands of supporters that he would soon embark on a nationwide listening tour before leading a march on the capital.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido's supporters demonstrated in Caracas -- but so did followers of P...
Opposition leader Juan Guaido's supporters demonstrated in Caracas -- but so did followers of President Nicolas Maduro
Matias DELACROIX, AFP

"Once we've finished the tour, organizing in every state, we'll announce the date when all together we'll come to Caracas," Guaido said, using a megaphone as he stood on the roof of a pickup truck.

Guaido, who proclaimed himself president of the country of 30 million people in January and says Maduro's May re-election was illegitimate -- has demanded new polls.

He threatened to call for an outside military intervention "when the time comes," pointing to the constitution, which authorizes "the use of a Venezuelan military mission abroad, or foreigners inside the country."

"All options are on the table," he said, borrowing a phrase from US President Donald Trump.

- 'We will never surrender' -

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a rally at the Miraflores presidential palace in Carac...
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a rally at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas -- his political opponent Juan Guaido rallied his supporters as well
YURI CORTEZ, AFP

Maduro also rallied his supporters. Wearing red, they protested against "imperialism" at a march that marked four years since the United States branded Venezuela a "threat" to its security and imposed sanctions.

"Today, more than ever, we're anti-imperialists. We will never surrender!" Maduro wrote on Twitter.

He said that almost 70 percent of power had been restored by mid-day, when a "cyberattack" was reported at a major power plant.

"That disturbed and undid everything we had achieved," he said.

Both the pro-Guaido and the pro-Maduro rallies ended without major incident.

- 'A lot of distress' -

View of Caracas on March 9  2019 as the blackout continues
View of Caracas on March 9, 2019 as the blackout continues
Matias DELACROIX, AFP

The blackout has been one of the worst and longest in recent memory in Venezuela, which is already suffering from serious shortages of food and medicine due to the overarching economic crisis.

Problems have been exacerbated by hyperinflation that the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million percent this year.

An estimated 2.7 million people have left the country since 2015.

"This has been horrible," said Sol Dos Santos, a 22-year-old, whose daughter is hospitalized. "Everything is dark. Only some areas with generators are working."

"Every day is worse," said Edward Cazano, a 20-year-old who lives with his mother and three brothers in a poor Caracas neighborhood called Pinto Salinas.

- Dialysis units switched off -

A woman stands at the entrance of a Caracas apartment building during the blackout -- critics say th...
A woman stands at the entrance of a Caracas apartment building during the blackout -- critics say the Venezuelan government failed to invest enough in the country's power grid
Cristian Hernandez, AFP

Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez blamed the initial power outage on a cyberattack against the Guri hydroelectric plant in the country's south, which serves 80 percent of Venezuela.

Critics blame the government for failing to maintain the power grid.

Hospitals have since reported terrible problems, and those with generators were using them only in emergencies, while flight cancellations left hundreds of travelers stranded at airports.

The Caracas subway, which normally transports two million people a day, remained shuttered.

Venezuelans flocked to the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas -- where they can get telephone serv...
Venezuelans flocked to the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas -- where they can get telephone service -- to call loved ones and check on the latest news about the blackout
Matias DELACROIX, AFP

Francisco Valencia, director of the Codevida health rights group that reported the 15 deaths, said some 10,200 people were at risk because dialysis units had switched off.

"We are talking about 95 percent of dialysis units, which today likely hit 100 percent, being paralyzed, due to the power outage," he said.

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