Protests in Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto and other cities on Wednesday sparked a violent response, with police dispersing crowds with tear gas in the El Paraiso district of this capital.

The 2017 crackdown left more than 135 people dead. The government also consolidated itself by usurping power from the nation’s only independent entity, the National Assembly.

“I’m marching for my future,” said Estephany Zorrilla, an 18-year old student. “Even though we’re going to go through hell, the government has to fall. We’ll have to make a lot of sacrifices, but we have to open the way forward.”

Juan Guaidó, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, attends a session in Caracas on Jan. 22. Photo: stringer/Reuters

The demonstrations come as the new leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, has won international support and a strong domestic following by declaring he would be willing to become head of a transitional government.

With spontaneous protests simmering across Caracas this week, Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday declared in a video in which he mixed English with Spanish that the U.S. would support the 35-year-old parliamentarian.

“We stand with you, and we will stay with you until democracy is restored,” Mr. Pence said.

Mr. Guaidó has had to walk a careful line in speaking forcefully to Venezuelans tired of a government whose policies have fueled hunger and want while trying to maintain his freedom. Some of Venezuela’s top opposition leaders have been jailed, forced into exile or barred from participating in politics.

Mr. Guaidó has sought to unite an opposition long held back by its own internal divisions, spark sustained street protests and urge Mr. Maduro’s security services to act against a government he says has violated the constitution. He promised members of the military amnesty if they support a transitional government and assist in the restoration of Venezuela’s constitutional order.

The National Assembly also approved a resolution last week that called on foreign governments to freeze bank accounts and assets that are currently controlled by the Maduro administration, which is dependent on revenue from oil exports.

President Maduro gestures during the arrival for a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to present his annual state of the nation in Caracas on Jan. 14. Photo: stringer/Reuters

Venezuelans and many foreign governments, including the U.S., have been closely watching how the military would respond to renewed protests.

One active military officer said soldiers are suffering through the same scarcities as ordinary Venezuelans. The country has the world’s highest inflation, crime is rampant and academic surveys show many Venezuelans are unable to get enough to eat.

“A general earns $49 a month, a colonel $35, a captain $30, a lieutenant $25, a soldier, $8,” the officer said. “How can you maintain your family? They are part of a population that is hungry and also lacks medicines.”

Another former high-ranking officer who was once close to Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, said any moves by the military would depend on how big a show of force the people would display.

“There’s less control of the military than in the past,” said the officer, Cliver Alcala, who had been a general. “It’s a complex day for our companions in the armed forces.”

But one of Venezuela’s top experts on the military, Rocio San Miguel, said there were no signs that the military was going to rise up. She said a mutiny by a few National Guard soldiers on Monday didn’t have much impact.

“The armed forces are not showing that they will abandon Maduro,” she said.

Protesters, draped in the Venezuelan flag, were undaunted. In Caracas, they took to the streets, complaining about everything from the government’s repression to hyperinflation to the lack of phone, water or power, realities in a country where public services have nearly collapsed.

“We have to take the streets because we don’t want them to plant fear in us,” said 39-year-old Cilia Cortillo, adding that she was protesting for a better future for her 8-year-old daughter.

‘Walking Backwards’: One Woman’s Journey in Venezuela
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Maria Planchart once lived comfortably in Caracas and had aspirations of being a lawyer. In this WSJ Films documentary, we follow her struggle to feed her family. (Originally published may 17, 2018)

“I have to fight for her, for the future of this country,” she said as National Guard troops stood behind a row of shields and fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators. “Look, they’re preparing their weapons because they don’t want any kind of rally.”

Retired social-security worker Yvette Diaz said she was protesting against food and medicine shortages that force her to scramble around on an arthritic knee to find the products she needs. “I feel really bad because I’m going through hunger, just like these soldiers.”

It remained unclear on Wednesday what other steps the U.S. would take. But Trump administration officials have said they were willing to help a transitional government access Venezuelan government funds that are frozen in foreign countries.

This month, a senior Trump administration official said the U.S. is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions against Venezuela’s military and vital oil industry.

“Venezuela doesn’t need the financial backing of anyone; they have the wealth, the cash flow,” the senior U.S. official said. “The problem is that the current government has been handing that out to their cronies. That’s going to come to an end. The question is who is the legitimate authority in Venezuela today and who is the legitimate administrator of those assets and billions of dollars.”

Despite years of rocky relations between Caracas and Washington, the U.S. remains the South American nation’s top source of hard currency, receiving nearly half of Venezuela’s crude, which, according to OPEC, has seen production fall by half over five years to 1.2 million barrels a day. “That’s where the leverage from us comes in,” the senior U.S. official said.

—Juan Forero in Bogotá, Colombia, and Ryan Dube in Lima, Peru,
contributed to this article.

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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