Opposition leader Juan Guaido held talks with Venezuela's public sector unions on Tuesday about staging strikes to help bring down the government, as President Nicolas Maduro said a "crazed minority" bent on destabilizing the country would be defeated.
The strikes would ratchet up pressure on a weakened Maduro by giving several million state employees, a traditional bastion of government support, a chance to demonstrate their frustration with an administration that has overseen Venezuela's deepest ever economic crisis.
The opposition is also seeking to capitalize on momentum spurred by Guaido's triumphant return to Venezuela on Monday to press for an end to Maduro's rule.
Guaido flouted a travel ban to tour Latin American countries to muster support for his plan for a transition government ahead of free and fair elections.
"They thought the pressure had already maxed out," said Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela's legitimate head of state.
"They better know that the pressure has barely begun," he told a news conference.
Maduro, speaking for the first time since Guaido's return, said he would not allow "anything or anyone to disrupt the peace." He called for "anti-imperialist" demonstrations across the country on Saturday, coinciding with marches called by Guaido.
"The crazed minority continues in their bitterness. We are going to defeat them, be absolutely sure," he said during a ceremony to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the death of his predecessor Hugo Chavez.
While Guaido had publicly speculated that authorities would detain him when he returned, he passed through Caracas' international airport without a problem. He then sped to a march where he mocked the government for letting him in so easily, telling the crowd: "Somebody didn't follow an order."
The socialist government had kept unusually silent since Guaido landed, with no top officials commenting until Maduro spoke at the ceremony, held at the military barracks where Chavez launched a failed 1992 coup. He became president seven years later.
Maduro accuses Guaido of leading a coup, orchestrated by the U.S. government, and has said he will "face justice." The former trade union leader denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and has blocked the opposition's attempts to bring in aid to alleviate shortages of food and medicine.
"THE MOMENT HAS COME"
Washington's top envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, said on Tuesday it was hard to see a role for Maduro in future democratic elections. He said the Trump administration was considering secondary sanctions against non-US citizens and entities tied to the Maduro government.
"If he wanted to build a democratic Venezuela, he had the opportunity to do so, but he did not," Abrams told reporters.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil sector and announced asset freezes and travel bans targeting top government officials.
Guaido said the strikes would be staggered and aim to paralyze the public sector. He has called on state officials, who have been historically pressured by the ruling Socialist Party to publicly back Maduro, to disavow the government, and has promised future amnesties for those that do.
"The moment has come and our call, our request, and our complete support for public employees, is to bring about this strike," Guaido said after meeting with state workers. He did not say when the strikes would be held.
"It's a proposal from the workers, that they aren't going to keep collaborating with the regime," Guaido said.
Union leaders for state telecoms firm Cantv, national power company Corpoelec, and the foreign ministry told Reuters they would join a public sector strike. There was no investment and tens of thousands of employees had abandoned their positions in recent years, they said.
Guaido had secretly left Venezuela for Colombia, in violation of a Supreme Court order, to coordinate efforts there on February 23 to send aid into Venezuela.
But troops blocked convoys of aid trucks sent from Colombia and Brazil, leading to clashes that killed at least six people along the Brazilian border, rights groups say.
Guaido says Maduro's presidency is illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely considered a sham. Maduro retains control of state institutions and the loyalty of senior figures in the armed forces.