Reform bid inflames deadly Venezuela crisis


Caracas (AFP) –

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s call for a new constitution to quell a deadly political crisis inflamed his opponents, who blocked roads and banged pots on Tuesday to demand elections.

Maduro said his move was necessary to fend off what he says is an attempted foreign-backed “coup” against him.

His opponents say it 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.

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

“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.”

  • New constitution –

The opposition is demanding early elections to replace the socialist president.

Maduro 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.

Maduro regularly portrays Venezuela as the victim of a US-led capitalist conspiracy.

The opposition complained that the body drafting the new charter would not be the result of a popular election.

Maduro said it would be composed of workers and farmers, constituencies that form his party’s traditional base of support.

It will be “a citizen’s constituent body, not from political parties — a people’s constituent body,” he said.

He said the National Electoral Council would start work on the process on Tuesday.

  • Food shortages –

Maduro was elected in 2013 to succeed his late mentor Hugo Chavez.

Their government had won the affection of many through social welfare programs.

Maduro’s popularity has since dropped sharply, as falling prices for Venezuela’s crucial oil exports have slashed the state’s revenues.

Venezuelans are suffering shortages of food, baby milk, medicine and other basic supplies.

The International Monetary Fund estimates inflation in Venezuela will hit 720 percent this year.

  • ‘Playing for time’ –

Maduro has resisted repeated opposition efforts to hold a vote on removing him from power.

The next presidential elections are due at the end of next year. 

Under Venezuelan law the constituent assembly’s decisions would overrule any other state institution.

Political analyst Nicmer Evans said that with his new proposal Maduro is “playing for time at all cost, in order to stay in power”.

“The pro-Chavez movement is convening the only kind of election it can win by manipulating the way voting is held,” said Eugenio Martinez, an analyst who specializes in elections.

  • Protesters block streets –

Angry protesters hit the streets early on Monday in renewed rallies.

AFP reporters saw streets blocked with makeshift barricades of rubbish and pulled-down trees as people banged pots and blew horns.

“This constituent assembly that Maduro has announced is a manipulation to escape elections,” said student Raul Hernandez, 22, one of about 100 people blocking a major avenue in eastern Caracas.

Maduro made his announcement to thousands of supporters who rallied for a May Day demo on Monday.

Elsewhere security forces sprayed tear gas and water cannon at anti-government demonstrators, the latest in more than a month of clashes.

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

Monday’s announcement “only sharpens the crisis,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon of polling firm Datanalysis.

“A constituent assembly without democratic elections will unify the opposition, isolate the government and strengthen street protests.”

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

“People, into the streets!” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said on Twitter.

“You must disobey such lunacy!”

    <figure><figcaption>President Nicolas Maduro's plan for a new constitution sparks fresh protests in crisis-torn Venezuela
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
      </figcaption><img src="" width="768" height="513"><figcaption>Despite 28 dead in a month of protests, many Venezuelans are heeding opposition calls to keep the pressure on the leftist government
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>
      </figcaption><img src="" width="768" height="486"><figcaption>Venezuelan national flag as they block a street during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas
        <span>Copyright AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT</span>