Venezuela's Guaido to lead rally as blackout lingers

CARACAS, March 9 - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Saturday will lead a rally in the capital of Caracas to maintain pressure on President Nicolas Maduro as authorities slowly restored power after the country's worst blackout in decades.

The OPEC nation was plunged into darkness on Thursday evening in what the governing Socialist Party called an act of U.S.-sponsored sabotage but opposition critics derided as the result of two decades of mismanagement and corruption.

Two rights groups focused on health issues said the blackout had contributed to the deaths on Friday of a baby and a teenager, with hospitals unable to provide enough back-up energy generation. Authorities have not commented.

"I call on the Venezuelan people to demonstrate in the streets against the corrupt and incompetent usurper regime that has left our country in the dark," tweeted Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela's legitimate president, on Friday night.

Police were deployed on the Caracas avenue where the opposition march was planned. One local broadcaster said a woman had been sprayed with pepper spray after exchanging words with the officers.

The Socialist Party has called for a competing march on Saturday to protest against what it calls imperialism by the United States, which has levied crippling oil sanctions on Maduro's government in efforts to cut off its sources of funding.

Much of the country remained without electricity in the wake of Thursday's blackout, which had led the government to cancel school and suspend workday activities.

Venezuela, already suffering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages of basic goods, has been mired in a major political crisis since Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency in January, dismissing the 2018 election won by Maduro as a fraud.

Maduro says Guaido is a puppet of Washington and dismisses his claim to the presidency as an effort by the Trump administration to control Venezuela's oil wealth.