CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelans heeded opposition leader Juan Guaidó's call to fill streets around the nation Wednesday but security forces showed no sign of backing his cry for a widespread military uprising, instead dispersing crowds with tear gas as the political crisis threatened to deepen.
Thousands cheered Guaidó in Caracas as he rolled up his sleeves and called on Venezuelans to remain out in force and prepare for a general strike, a day after his bold attempt to spark a mass military defection by forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro failed to tilt the balance of power.
"It's totally clear now the usurper has lost," he proclaimed, a declaration belied by events on the ground.
Across town at the Carlota air base near where Guaidó made his plea Tuesday for a revolt, intense clashes between protesters and troops loyal to Maduro made clear the standoff would drag on. There and elsewhere state security forces launched tear gas and fired rubber bullets, while bands of mostly young men armed with makeshift shields threw rocks and set a motorcycle ablaze.
"I don't want to say it was a disaster," Marilina Carillo, 54, said, standing in a crowd of people blowing horns and whistles. "But it's wasn't a success."
Opposition leaders hoped that Guaidó's risky move would stir a string of high-ranking defections and shake Maduro's grip on power. Instead, some analysts expect the embattled socialist leader to emerge even more emboldened. While the chief of Venezuela's feared intelligence agency broke ranks, most others stood steadfast.
The dramatic events could spell even more uncertainty for Venezuela, which has been rocked by three months of political upheaval after Guaidó re-energized a flagging opposition movement by declaring himself interim president, saying Maduro had usurped power.
Now the struggle has heightened geopolitical dimensions, with the United States and more than 50 other nations backing Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate president and powerful Maduro allies like Russia lending the beleaguered president military and economic support.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Wednesday that Maduro is surrounded by "scorpions in a bottle" and that key figures among his inner circle had been "outed" as dealing with the opposition.
The United States also purports that Maduro had been ready to flee, an airplane already on the tarmac, but was talked out of it by Russian advisers.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, said such assertions were part of a "global information and psychological war against Venezuela and Caracas."
"There is no proof there was a Russian plane there," she said. "The U.S. is big on Venezuela and wants to bring this to an end but that cannot do that."
Protesters like Beatriz Pino, who took to the streets Wednesday waving flags and banging pots and pans, said they weren't entirely surprised by the military's response to Guaidó. She blamed the late Hugo Chavez with politicizing Venezuela's military. Despite the setback, she said she remained equally committed to the opposition's call for protest.
"We can't leave the streets," she said. "We've been in this for years."
As the standoff drags on, the lives of Venezuelans struggling with soaring hyperinflation rendering salaries worthless, as well as shortages of food and medicine could become even more difficult.
"We need to get out of this tragedy," said Ana Camarillo, a 46-year-old housewife.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert, said the opposition's thus far unsuccessful attempt to trigger an uprising should provoke a round of reflection.
"Given the balance of power within Venezuela and the geopolitical struggle around it, they need to engage in real politics and real negotiations to move this conflict to a different place," he said.
Tuesday's turmoil began with the dawn release of the video showing Guaidó flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and Leopoldo Lopez, the nation's most prominent activist. Detained in 2014 for leading anti-government unrest, Lopez said security forces following Guaidó's orders released him from house arrest.
However, by late Tuesday Lopez and his family had sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador's residence and later moved to the Spanish Embassy.
Amid the unrest, Maduro's military commanders went on state television to proclaim their loyalty. But Bolton claimed that key power brokers, including Venezuela's defense minister, the chief justice of the pro-government Supreme Court and head of the presidential guard had committed to achieve the peaceful transfer of power to Guaidó.
Yet none of those defections materialized, with just one high-ranking official, the chief of Venezuela's feared SEBIN intelligence agency, breaking ranks.
At a large pro-Maduro rally Wednesday, ruling party leader Diosdado Cabello said that "as a block" Venezuela's military remained intact and united behind Maduro. He likened opposition leaders to "walking zombies" a day after the uprising attempt.
Luis Scott was among those wearing bright red shirts in solidarity with the socialist government and said he traveled seven hours on a bus to participate in the rally. He admitted that Venezuela has deep economic troubles, but said the path set by Chavez and Maduro is firm.
"We are fighting for our freedom," the 50-year-old fisherman said.
While Maduro maintains a devout core of fervent supporters first inspired by Chavez, attendance at such shows of support is viewed as a requirement of their jobs.
At the Plaza Francia in Caracas' Altamira neighborhood, protesters jammed the streets in one of the opposition's biggest demonstrations yet. But a few blocks away the scene quickly turned ugly. Protesters surrounded a suspected thief, beating him until he bled. A man with a megaphone appealed to the crowd to return to the fight against police.
"The fight is down there!" he said, gesturing to the direction of a military base.
Mayor Gustavo Duque said the Salud Chacao medical center took in 27 patients by late afternoon Wednesday, one of whom was shot in the foot by a firearm. Those injuries are on top of more than 50 reported by the hospital's director during clashes on Tuesday.
Maduro didn't appear at the socialist party rally, but wrote on Twitter that he was monitoring the march. He has remained largely out of public view since Guaidó's attempt to spark a mass defection. Late Tuesday night, he emerged on state television surrounded by his closest advisers and blasted Guiadó's move as a U.S.-backed coup attempt.
"This cannot go unpunished," he said.
The brazen move by Guaidó is likely to force Maduro to make a difficult decision on whether to let his adversary remain a free man. Giancarlo Morelli of the British analysis group Economist Intelligence Unit said Maduro faces peril whatever path he takes.
"Failing to arrest Mr. Guaidó would be perceived as an important sign for weakness from Mr. Maduro," Morelli said. "But arresting Mr. Guaidó risks a strong counter-reaction from the U.S.," which has been ratcheting up sanctions.
For many Venezuelans, the turmoil has become an almost normal state of affairs.
Johanns Davila, 61, walked his dog through a street in Venezuela's capital Wednesday that was littered with shotgun shells, tear gas canisters and a charred motorcycle, the remnants of skirmishes between the opposition and state security.
"We need to get people out," he said, "and recover the country."
Venezuela unrest: Venezuelans take to streets as uprising attempt sputters
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