The first bloodshed was captured on camera at about midday, when an armoured vehicle belonging to Venezuelan security forces accelerated towards protesters scattering along a highway, bounced over the median – and then crumpled at least one person under its wheels.
Violence seemed inevitable on a day when Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó attempted to launch a military uprising and popular protests in the name of democracy and freedom, to topple the government of Nicolás Maduro.
The Venezuelan government has shot at protesters before, when dealing with less direct challenges to its authority.
But despite the looming threat, thousands answered Guaido’s call, joining a steady march down the long Avenue of Francisco Miranda that snakes through the capital, waving flags or wearing the national colours.
Francisco Betancourt and Elizabeth Saavedra said they had told their son that it would be dangerous in Caracas on Tuesday – but then explained why they wanted him to join the protests with them.
“We wanted him to be here so that he could tell his children he took part in changing Venezuela, the day that it was transformed from a nightmare to a dream,” Betancourt said. An hour later they were walking through the heart of Caracas, wearing red, yellow and blue.
Betancourt added: “We hope that in the next 48 hours, Venezuela can finally offer a better future for our son and his children. We know it will be difficult to create a different Venezuela, but it’s worth it.”
As the afternoon dragged on, masked protesters began battles with security forces, throwing stones and facing rubber bullets in response. At least one bus was set on fire.
We are the resistance in the streets. We are dying of hunger, our family members are leaving, they are dyingVictor Zabala
Victor Zabala, 25, showed his back pockmarked with bruising and blood from the pellets. “We are the resistance in the streets,” he said, vowing to stay at the protests. “We are dying of hunger, our family members are leaving, they are dying.”
Despite the violence, and a shortage of transport – the metro was closed, and public buses appeared to have vanished from the streets – a large crowd gathered in the central Plaza Altamira to hear Guaidó address supporters.
The speech offered a moment of calm. Heavily armed defectors from the national guard stood on their cars, watching Guaidó as he promised non-violent change through “Operation Freedom”.
The country had woken to Guaido’s video calling for an uprising, filmed in the pre-dawn light, and flanked by his political mentor, Leopoldo López who had been sprung from house arrest.
By the time the sun had full risen, people in opposition strongholds were leaning out of their windows banging pans in a traditional cazerolazo protest as word spread of Guiadó’s last-ditch gamble on change.
There were fewer cars than usual on the streets, with schools and many businesses closed, but supporters headed towards the centre of town on foot and on motorbikes, in response to the summons.
Protests soon spread to other cities, and online opposition supporters cheered a video from eastern Puerto Ordaz, which showed an armoured vehicle turn and lumber away from the crowd.
In Caracas, hundreds of pro-government protesters also answered a call for support on the streets, after Maduro promised “nerves of steel”, and his second-in-command, Diosdado Cabello, insisted Guaido’s attempt to seize power would fail.
At the presidential palace in Caracas, a few hundred Maduro supporters gathered, most of them public sector employees or members of the Bolivarian militia – a group set up under Hugo Chávez in which civilians receive military training to defend the revolution.
Julian Rivero, 63, had hitchhiked in from Valles del Tuy, a commuter town about 40 minutes south-east of Caracas, carrying a bag of mangos that he said would keep him going through the day.
“I brought my breakfast, lunch and dinner with me because I’m going to stay and defend the revolution.”
He had nothing but scorn for the opposition. “That lot want there to be deaths to create chaos in the country, but we don’t want that. We want peace. They are breaking Venezuela.”
Valentin Santana, the leader of one of many armed pro-government gangs known as colectivos, posted a video on social media in which he brandished an automatic rifle. “It’s time to defend the revolution with arms,” he said.
Senior military officers were less visible but apparently equally supportive. There was no mass military defection, no commanders pledged support to Guaido, and no major installations came under opposition control.
The unfolding challenge to Maduro’s rule was also followed closely by many of the millions of Venezuelans who have fled their country as hyperinflation sped up, and food and medicine shortages deepened in recent years.
Just beyond the border, in Cúcuta, Colombia, scores of military defectors loyal to Guaidó gathered early at the Simón Bolívar bridge to support the uprising.
They were unarmed and chose not to wear uniforms “out of respect to Colombia”, but said they were “awaiting orders from our president, Juan Guaidó”. However hours later, with no word from Caracas, the group had largely dissipated.
A steady trickle of Venezuelan military defectors have arrived to the Colombian border city of Cúcuta since February 23, when Guaidó attempted to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela.
Colombian authorities estimate that up to 1000 of Venezuela’s security forces have now fled their posts, after the opposition urged them to and promised amnesty.
Many initially dreamed of crossing back into Venezuela as an army and assisting with overthrowing Maduro’s government, but instead found themselves waiting for a command that – so far – has still not come.
Additional reporting by Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá