Venezuela opposition aims to flood Caracas in anti-Maduro protest

September 1, 2016 1:11 AM EDT

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, waves a Venezuelan flag during a gathering with opposition supporters in Caracas, Venezuela August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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By Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Kai

CARACAS (Reuters) - White-clad opposition supporters from all corners of Venezuela were descending on Caracas on Thursday for rallies intended to press for a recall referendum this year against unpopular socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

With protesters coming in from the Amazon jungle to the western Andes, the opposition coalition hopes a million people will gather in a show of anger at Maduro and Venezuela's deep economic crisis.

Maduro, 53, says the opposition-dubbed 'Takeover of Caracas' disguises a U.S.-fomented coup plan, akin to a short-lived 2002 putsch against his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Edgy authorities arrested some well-known activists in the run-up, with 13 opposition campaigners and supporters still in custody, according to a local rights group.

Extra police and troops were being positioned across the chaotic city, and roadblocks were expected.

Fearing violence, especially given 43 deaths around anti-Maduro protests in 2014, many businesses planned to close.

"We have to come out and fight for a free Venezuela! We can't take this any more," said Elizabeth De Baron, 69, a secretary planning to leave Guarenas town before dawn to drive the roughly 25 miles (40 km) into Caracas.

Dozens of indigenous people marched hundreds of miles from their home state of Amazonas for the events.

Swearing loyalty to Chavez's legacy and calling opposition leaders a wealthy elite intent on controlling Venezuela's oil, red-shirted government supporters were preparing counter-rallies.

"I will never give up!" Maduro told them this week.

He narrowly won election after Chavez died from cancer in 2013, but has failed to replicate his charismatic leadership.

The president's ratings have halved to under 25 percent as falling oil prices and the failing state-led economy leave the OPEC nation in turmoil.

Triple-digit inflation, a third year of recession, shortages of basics, and long lines at shops have exasperated Venezuelans and underpinned a resounding opposition election win at a December legislative vote.

Despite the country's ills, the opposition struggles to consolidate support among 'Chavistas' and even its own base, disillusioned with the failure of past street action.

With a compliant Supreme Court vetoing every major measure congress takes, the opposition wants to activate a plebiscite on Maduro as allowed in the constitution halfway through his term.

But the election board has dragged its feet on the process, making the vote unlikely this year. Should it happen in 2017 and were he to lose, Maduro's vice-president would take over, keeping the ruling Socialist Party in power, rather than there being a new presidential election.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Corina Pons; Editing by Girish Gupta and Bill Rigby)

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