Venezuela's opposition and government head into a crucial test of strength Thursday with massive marches for and against a referendum to recall President Nicolas Maduro that have raised fears of a violent confrontation.
Soldiers and police began taking up positions at strategic locations across the country Wednesday, ahead of what the opposition is billing as its biggest show of force yet -- dubbed "The Taking of Caracas" -- against the leftist government.
Opposition leaders are hoping to put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to demand quick action on a recall vote that Maduro has vehemently resisted.
It comes amid an economic collapse that has led to widespread shortages of food and medicine, violent crime and outbreaks of looting in a once-rich OPEC mainstay.
"All of Venezuela is mobilizing for the right to vote" said Jesus Torrealba, the head of the main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
Calling Thursday's action "the most important political mobilization of our recent history," he said marchers would defy the government's "strategy of fear, blackmail and intimidation."
Going on the offensive, the "Chavistas" -- so named after Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez -- staged a big rally Tuesday.
They held another on Wednesday, and have called on their supporters to "defend the revolution" with a massive turnout Thursday at what they call "The Taking of Venezuela."
"Don't provoke us because not only are we going to block up Caracas so that no one can enter, but we will also make sure that no one can leave," said former National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, noting that private flights over Venezuela have been banned this week.
Maduro has accused the opposition of planning a "coup" and threatened to imprison opposition leaders if violence breaks out at Thursday's protests.
"Squeal, cry or scream, jail is where they'll go," he said.
Diego Montoya-Ocampo, an analyst with London-based IHS Markit Country Risk, said the stakes are high.
"The opposition is playing for it all with everything it has," he told AFP. "It wants to show that it is a great majority in a country that wants change."
"The government is centered on a strategy of demoralize, demobilize and sow fear," he said.
- 'Recall hunger' -
At the heart of the battle is the timing of the referendum.
If a recall vote is held before January 10 and Maduro loses, new elections must be held. If he loses in a recall held after that date, then he would simply turn over power to his hand-picked vice president.
The opposition, which accuses the National Electoral Council of slow-rolling the process to benefit the "Chavistas," is demanding that the process be accelerated so a vote can be held this year.
The council insists it won't be swayed by protests and has warned that the process will be halted altogether if street protests turn violent.
To recall Maduro, the "yes" vote needs to exceed the 7.5 million votes with which he was elected in 2013.
According to polling firm Venebarometro, 64 percent of the electorate would vote against him.
"What is coming is change, because the people want to recall hunger, insecurity and the lack of medicine," said Torrealba, adding that opposition marchers would concentrate on three strategic avenues in eastern Caracas, an opposition stronghold.
Maduro, who blames the crisis on the collapse of oil prices and an "economic war" by business leaders, must contend with deep public discontent over shortages and an inflation rate projected to hit 720 percent this year.
Despite the angry public mood, the opposition has not organized mass rallies since 2014, when the government crushed weeks-long anti-government protests, a confrontation that left 43 dead and prominent opposition leaders in prison.
Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who distanced himself from the protests in 2014, told AFP that this time the opposition is banking on mass mobilizations and international pressure to get the government to accept the recall election.
- 'Imperialist plot' -
MUD delegates traveled to the United States to urge the United Nations and the Organization of American States to monitor Thursday's protests and condemn what they regard as an increase in the level of repression.
In the days ahead of the march, the authorities arrested two opposition leaders, and sent back to prison a former mayor, Daniel Ceballos, who had been under house arrest for the past year stemming from the 2014 protests.
"The government is doing all this out of fear," said Torrealba. Capriles urged people not be intimidated, and estimated that a million people would heed the call to march.
"We don't want war, we don't want violence, we want timetables for a recall," said Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
Maduro has lashed out at the protest as a plot by the "fascist right" that "comes directly from North American imperialism."
The socialist leader linked the protests he faces to the impeachment trial in Brazil of president Dilma Rousseff and the assassination of a deputy minister of Bolivia's president Evo Morales.
Meanwhile, former leaders Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain and Martin Torrijos of Panama arrived in Caracas this week, offering their good offices.
Zapatero and Torrijos were members of an international mediation team that tried and failed to arrange a dialogue between the government and the opposition.