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Ahead of Massive Protest March, Venezuela Opposition Demands Change

It is expected that about a million Venezuelans will take to the streets to force the government for a referendum on Maduro.
A woman with a sign reading "We are starving" protests against new emergency powers decreed this week by President Nicolas Maduro in front of a line of riot policemen in Caracas on May 18, 2016. FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela's opposition hopes the massive protest expected in Caracas on Thursday shows they are not backing down until they force a recall of the country's president.

About one million people are expected to show up at the heart of the city to participate in an 11-mile march.

Americo de Grazia, an opposition congressman in the National Assembly for Bolívar state, told NBC News Venezuelans from all parts of the country are traveling to join the march and show the government their “discontent in a peaceful, constitutional and democratic way.”

Venezuelans have vowed to take to the streets to pressure the electoral body, known as the CNE, to move along the recall referendum to oust President Nicolás Maduro. The referendum started earlier this year with the collection of the signatures of 1 percent of the electorate. It's a process that the coalition of opposition parties, the MUD, says has been marred by a series of setbacks imposed by the president of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena.

This new protest grows out of a frustration at the ravages of the deteriorating economic and political situation. A typical day for most Venezuelans involves making long lines at groceries stores and pharmacies in search for basic foods and medicines. The electricity goes out constantly, and people fear to go out at night due to high insecurity.

The country is in the middle of the worst economic crisis of the last 50 years. The IMF estimates the inflation in the country has reached more than 700 percent and the economy is expected to shrink by 8 percent by the end of the year. A crisis the government says is due to an economic war orchestrated by the United States.

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The CNE has refused to set a date for the second phase of the referendum, where the MUD would need to gather the signatures of 20 percent of registered voters. The opposition believes Thursday’s march is the beginning of new phase in their long battle to change regimes in Venezuela.

De Grazia, who arrived in Caracas earlier in the week to guarantee he could be there, explained that the right to protest is protected by the constitution but Maduro’s government is using intimidation tactics to stop people from arriving in Caracas.

“I came via plane and the whole highway [between the airport, in la Guaira, and Caracas] it’s practically militarized, taken by war tanks, with tents and anti-riot equipment,” he said.

In the days leading to the march, “they started detaining all kinds of people from union leaders, to politicians, students and even mayors,” said De Grazia. This included opposition mayors Daniel Ceballos of San Cristóbal and Warner Jímenez of Maturín.

"The government can dilute them but it cannot stop them," says one opposition member.

The U.S. Department Of State on Sunday condemned the decision of the government to move Ceballos from house arrest to prison, calling it an “effort to impede the Venezuelan people’s right to peacefully express their opinions on September 1.” The U.S. also called for Ceballos’ immediate release.

Some Venezuelans have chosen to protest by walking from remote parts of the country all the way to Caracas. That is the case with a group of tribal leaders from the Amazon, according to governor and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who said they arrived in Caracas Wednesday even though they were blocked by military officers at several checkpoints during their journey.

The protests Thursday are more focused than past mass demonstrations because the opposition is calling for the recognition of a constitutional right to referendum, said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University professor and expert on Venezuelan politics. The chances, though, of that referendum coming to fruition are slim, Sabatini added.

A woman with a sign reading "There is no food" protests against new emergency powers decreed this week by President Nicolas Maduro in front of a line of policemen in Caracas on May 18, 2016.FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images

“This government isn’t going to budge,” Sabatini told NBC News. “The government has made it very clear that it opposes the referendum and will likely take any steps it feels it needs to take to preserve its political legitimacy.”

While the CNE is widely recognized as an institution loyal to the government, if the opposition was able to gather far more than the required 3.9 million signatures – or 20 percent of the voting electorate – Maduro would come under enormous pressure from within his own party to step down, said Leopoldo Martinez, a former opposition member of congress in Venezuela and now chairman of the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas.

“The protests will show the opposition as a strong front capable of mobilizing the masses,” Martinez told NBC News. “The government can dilute them but it cannot stop them.”

Gustavo Arnavat, former Obama administration official and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the referendum will eventually happen.

“If it happens after January 10th and Maduro is recalled from office, then his vice president takes over for the remainder of the time. While the opposition might see that as a failure because it doesn’t meet its immediate objective of changing the current government in Venezuela, I think that it's part of the process.” Arnavat told NBC News. “And in due course it will ultimately succeed in having a leader of the opposition be elected president of Venezuela.”

Arnavat said it's "certainly a more laborious and lengthy process. One that I think, is ultimately more justified from an institutional and a democratic perspective.”

As for Venezuelans living outside of the country, there are dozens of scheduled protests outside of the consulates between Thursday and Sunday including in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, and San Juan in Puerto Rico.

“This is a fight for the long haul,” said Congressman De Grazia. “It has been written in the DNA of Venezuelans that we have to get rid of this regime.”

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Additional reporting by NBC Nightly News producer Daniel A. Medina.