Constitution bid inflames deadly Venezuela crisis

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Caracas (AFP) – Barricades of rubbish and bins blocked streets in Venezuela Tuesday in a sign of worsening chaos as the opposition protested moves by President Nicolas Maduro to quell weeks of deadly political unrest.

Maduro has called for a new constitution, inflaming his opponents who vowed further mass protests to demand elections, and reviving international cries of concern.

The United States condemned Maduro’s announcement, while Brazil’s foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes, branded it a “coup.”

The Venezuelan opposition says the gambit further weakens the chances of holding a vote to remove Maduro, whom they blame for an economic crisis that has sparked food shortages and rioting.

  • ‘Coup’ against whom? –

Maduro said call for a new constitution was necessary to fend off what he says is an attempted foreign-backed “coup” against him. 

He has vowed to defend the socialist “revolution” launched by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez, who oversaw the writing of the current constitution.

Various analysts said the socialist president was playing for time and looking to delay presidential elections due next year.

“Maduro is gaining time at the expense of everybody, including by stomping on the roadmap left by Chavez himself,” said one socialist-leaning analyst, Nicmer Evans.

“This constituent assembly Maduro wants is a clear betrayal of Chavez and the people.”

Fresh violence erupted as armed men clashed with riot police who fired tear gas in Caracas, where hundreds of people blocked streets.

State ombudsman Tarek William Saab said on Twitter that masked men threw Molotov cocktails at a building housing a branch of his department in the northern city of Valencia.

A stun grenade reportedly went off in the courtyard of the opposition-controlled National Assembly legislature in Caracas as lawmakers prepared to held a debate on how to pressure Maduro.

  • ‘Step backwards’ –

Washington reiterated its concerns for democracy in Venezuela after Maduro’s constitutional announcement.

“We view it as a step backwards,” said top State Department official Michael Fitzpatrick.

“This process is not, by the initial indications, shaping up to be a genuine effort of national reconciliation, which is really what Venezuela needs now,” he said.

The past month of protests has shut down many schools and businesses.

The city’s once-vibrant nightlife has died due to fears of violence and looting.

Prosecutors said 28 people were killed last month in violence between protesters and police.

Conflicting reports of attacks by government-backed thugs or pro-opposition agitators have sown fear among citizens.

Many workers walked to work on Tuesday as the protests disrupted transport and metro stations were closed.

“Normally it takes me half an hour to get to work. Today it was two hours,” said David Ramos, a 58-year-old laborer.

“But you have to protest. There is no food or medicine.”

Caracas bus driver Luis Guillermo Perez, 52, kept on supporting Maduro however, as the protests forced him to take detours.

“I’ve had to juggle things around to work today and the passengers getting on are tense,” he said.

“Why are they blocking everything? They demand freedom and they are denying us freedom of movement. People are anxious.”

  • New constitution –

The opposition is demanding early elections to replace Maduro.

The president instead said he was invoking his power to create a 500-member “constituent assembly” to rewrite the constitution.

That would cut out other political parties and the opposition-controlled Congress from the process.

“This escalates the crisis to unprecedented levels. It increases tensions,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst at London-based consultancy IHS Markit Country Risk

“If protests do get out of hand it opens the door for Maduro’s powerful ally, the armed forces, to demand the constitution be respected or take over power to supervise a transition.”

Opposition leaders called for a “mega protest” on Wednesday.

    <figure><figcaption>President Nicolas Maduro's plan for a new constitution sparks fresh protests in crisis-torn Venezuela
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
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