Venezuela opposition rallies against Maduro to revive momentum

By Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition staged nationwide protests against President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday and called for a new wave of demonstrations to revive their stalled effort to topple the deeply unpopular ruling Socialist Party.

Protesters waved Venezuela's red, yellow and blue flag in a show of support for opposition leader Juan Guaido, who in January galvanized the opposition by assuming an interim presidency after declaring Maduro's 2018 re-election a fraud.

But Saturday's rallies were significantly smaller than those earlier in the year and the participants seemed less optimistic about change - a sign of frustration that Maduro remains in power despite an economic crisis and aggressive U.S. sanctions.

"They thought they were going to put the Venezuelan people to sleep, they thought they had instilled fear into our hearts," Guaido told the crowd in eastern Caracas. "Today, Venezuela is claiming victory in the streets."

The opposition will stage frequent demonstrations in the coming days to boost pressure on Maduro, he said, starting with a broad protest on Monday followed by sector-based protests by students and nurses later in the week.

Crowds cheered his speech, but dispersed quickly afterwards. Protesters did not clash with security forces in the wake of the rally, as has been typical in recent years.

"I know there's a small chance Guaido will get Maduro out," said Rosmely Guerra, 49, a sociology professor. "But even if there's just a 1% chance, I'm going to throw 99% of my faith behind it. What other option do we have?"

The country's hyperinflation, along with deterioration of electricity, water and transportation services, has left many exhausted from simply getting through their day.

And change in Venezuela will also hinge on a shift in allegiance of the armed forces, which remain loyal to Maduro.

That contrasts starkly with the situation in Bolivia, where the military called on President Evo Morales to resign following violent street protests over accusations he rigged his October re-election.

The Socialist Party held a rally in downtown Caracas in support of Morales.

"We're here because we want to make it clear that if someone meddles with our country, it won't be the same as in Bolivia," said Aida Romero, 66, who works in a government food program.

"We're willing to do anything. This revolution is peaceful, but it's also armed."

Venezuela's collapsing economy has spurred an exodus of more than 4 million seeking better access to food and medicine.

More than 50 countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president and the United States has implemented a sanctions program that has crippled Venezuela's oil exports.

Maduro dismisses Guaido as a puppet of the United States, and blames the economic problems on U.S. sanctions.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago; Additional reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)