Thousands of opposition protesters, led by Venezuela's self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaidó, called on the armed forces to abandon President Nicolas Maduro and allow humanitarian aid into the crisis-wracked country on Wednesday.
People took to the streets in the capital Caracas and various other cities, banging pots, blowing whistles and horns, and carrying banners that read: "Armed forces, regain your dignity," "Maduro usurper," "Guaidó, president" and "No to the dictatorship."
"Don't shoot people who are making demands also for your family," Guaidó said in a message to the military delivered from the central university in Caracas.
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro was seen huddling with his military ahead of planned anti-government protests Wednesday morning. In scenes broadcast on state TV, Maduro could be seen walking around the Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas early Wednesday with top commanders and dozens of troops.
"Do you love you homeland? Will you defend the constitution? Will you defend your commander in chief?" Maduro asked the troops, who responded with loud shouts of "Yes, commander in chief!"
Since opposition leader Guaidó declared himself interim president last week with the support of the United States and other nations, Maduro has appeared almost daily on state TV with his military, projecting an image of invincibility even as international pressure against him builds.
Political upheaval, general disarray
The political upheaval has exacerbated the general disarray in Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves but has suffered an economic meltdown marked by hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities.
Millions have been left in poverty, while 2.3 million more have fled the country, unleashing a migration crisis in South America.
Wednesday's protest, a two-hour strike, aimed to "demand that the armed forces side with the people" after bloody clashes following protests last week left more than 40 people dead and 850 incarcerated.
Earlier this week, The United States slapped oil sanctions on Maduro's regime in an attempt to starve the government of its funding.
US President Donald Trump has stressed is "strong support" for the nation's fight to regain its democracy to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the White House says.
Trump and Guaidó spoke on Wednesday. The White House says Guaidó thanked Trump for committing the US to freedom and prosperity in Venezuela and the region. The leaders also agreed to regular communication in support of Venezuela's path back to stability and to rebuild strained relations between both countries.
President Mauricio Macri extended Venezuela a “hug from the heart” and the “strength to keep fighting together” in a video posted to Twitter this week.
Another mass opposition street demonstration is planned for Saturday, alongside a parallel pro-regime march.
Maduro willing to talk?
In an interview with Russia's RIA Novosti agency, Maduro said he was willing to negotiate with the opposition and even offered to bring forward legislative elections – though dismissed the idea of a new presidential poll.
"Presidential elections in Venezuela have taken place, and if imperialists want new elections, let them wait until 2025," he said.
The European Union, US and many Latin American countries joined the opposition in dismissing the legitimacy of the election Maduro won in May – one boycotted by the opposition.
Although in opposition hands since 2015, the National Assembly has been sidelined since 2016 as the Supreme Court dominated by regime loyalists – annuls its every decision.