Crowds defy police to cry out for change in Venezuela

23 January 2019, 21:38 | Updated: 24 January 2019, 11:55

The crashing sounds of pots and pans being banged together on the streets of neighbourhoods across Caracas signalled the start of a day of demonstrations against the Venezuelan government.

They had promised thousands would be out on the streets across the country; but only the very optimistic dreamed of the size of the turn out following the opposition's call for action.

From all over the capital tens of thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands, ignored the intimidation tactics of the security services to gather with one voice.

For mile after mile a river of humanity marched along motorways, over bridges and jammed themselves on the underground heading for the city centre.

Men, women and children of all ages and all classes, swathed in Venezuelan flags and colours, moved together, shouting out their calls for freedom and liberation.

The streets of downtown were filled with throngs of people. Jubilant that after waiting months, if not years, to gather again like this they finally had.

The numbers were so large and so dense no cars could move. We criss-crossed the city on motorcycles, the only viable source of transport, to track the movement of people from all corners of Caracas.

Even the poorest areas, the beating heart of the country's socialist government set up by Hugo Chavez, emptied as people joined the demonstrations.

The Chavez dream of a utopian socialist society is a distant memory now. The country is broke, inflation over a million percent, the currency worthless and government supermarkets empty of food and almost everything else.

In one of the city's main squares thousands upon thousands gathered to see their hero, the speaker of the national assembly, Juan Guaido. He did not disappointment them.

For the first time he openly declared himself the country's interim president. The crowd exploded with a roar of support. Nobody had expected such a bold step. He is now directly challenging the authority of Nicolas Maduro, his government and the military that props them up.

Leaving the stage he was mobbed as the crowds surged around him, minders struggling to keep people back. As he passed I was squashed against a wall by the tide of people.

The 35-year-old has charisma and he has galvanised the people. He also has the special gift of doing the right thing, stopping to help lift a woman who had fallen over the in push. He helped her up and kissed her cheeks. She seemed utterly overwhelmed as she thanked him. The crowd went crazy.

"They needed a messiah," our Venezuelan producer Gustavo whispered to me. "Now they have one."

All around me people chanted "President, President!"

"Now is the time" a group of men and women chanted, "We want change, we want freedom."

Mr Guaido's supporters say the end is coming for the old guard but Mr Maduro's government still supported by the police and the military will fight back.

Within minutes of Mr Guaido's announcement, it began.

As the police moved in to break up the demonstration crowds of people began fighting back.

They dragged anything they could find onto the streets to protect them from rubber bullets. Clouds of choking tear gas filled the air as volley after volley was fired into the protesters.

They began smashing up paving stones, gathering the rocks, throwing them at the security services.

The crowds swayed backwards and forwards as the police repositioned themselves; making charges into the protesters attempting to snatch the stone throwers. Near stampedes ebbed and flowed as thousands attempted to hold their ground while trying to escape the choking gas.

Fires were started in the middle of the city streets. Scaffolding and signposts ripped down to throw at the advancing police supported with armoured cars and water cannon.

It was always going to be like this. President Maduro has no choice. The momentum is with the opposition now, but it is unlikely to be the end of the regime quite yet.

The opposition says they have been warming the streets. They are on fire now.