Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s angry opposition rallied Wednesday, vowing huge street protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution and accusing him of dodging elections to cling to power despite deadly unrest.
In an oil-rich country saddled with shortages of food, medicine and such basics as soap and toilet paper, a wave of protests against the socialist Maduro has been raging for more than a month, leaving 31 people dead.
Barricades of rubbish and bins blocked streets in Venezuela on Tuesday in protests that looked set to intensify after Maduro announced his plan for a “constituent assembly” to write a new constitution.
The body would not include political parties with seats in the National Assembly but rather representatives of social sectors such as workers, farmers and other communities traditionally loyal to Maduro.
He said it would represent more than just the “bourgeois” voting base of the opposition.
- ‘Dictatorship’ vs ‘insurgency’ –
The death toll from violence since the protests erupted in April 1 rose to 31, a source in the state prosecution service told AFP.
Metro stations were closed in Caracas and security forces deployed at key points in the early morning hours as the first protesters began to gather.
The opposition MUD coalition vowed the latest rally would be a “mega march.”
Maduro’s plan aims “not to consult with the people, but rather for the ruling party itself to choose so as to have a tailor-made constitution,” said Freddy Guevara, deputy speaker of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
“All dictatorships fall. This pantomime he wants to stage cannot take away our greatest strength: the people in the street.”
Maduro accused the opposition of resorting to “extremism.”
“They are moving into a phase of armed insurgency. In these grave circumstances, the only way to ensure peace is a constituent assembly.”
He said he would go to the National Electoral Council to launch the procedure for forming the assembly.
- Election disruption –
The Venezuelan opposition says Maduro’s gambit further weakens the chances of holding a vote to remove him.
They blame him for the economic crisis that has sparked the food shortages and rioting.
A presidential election is due to be held next year when Maduro’s term ends, five years after he was elected in 2013.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of people interviewed do not support Maduro, a former bus driver hand-picked by his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.
The idea of rewriting the constitution, said Diego Moya-Campos of the London-based risk consultancy IHS Markit, “is a desperate measure by a government that knows it cannot call elections because it is going to lose and resorts to polarization.”
- Whose ‘coup?’ –
Maduro said the process to bring in a new constitution was necessary to fend off what he describes as an attempted foreign-backed “coup” against him.
The opposition has in turn accused him of an internal “coup d’etat.”
Maduro has vowed to defend the socialist “revolution” launched by the late Chavez, who oversaw the writing of the current constitution.
Analysts said the socialist president was playing for time and looking to delay the presidential election.
“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.
- ‘Step backwards’ –
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.
Conflicting reports of attacks by government-backed thugs or pro-opposition agitators have sown fear among citizens.
The United States on Tuesday reiterated its concerns for democracy in Venezuela after Maduro’s announcement.
“We view it as a step backwards,” said top State Department official Michael Fitzpatrick.
<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="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/88f710d7f5b789df43ea61ffaa9fb32a72093198.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>Demonstrators block a street during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on May 2, 2017 <span>Copyright AFP/File FEDERICO PARRA</span> </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/b15e977ebeefe5000cce1c8c3890f747a17ad784.jpg" width="768" height="511"><figcaption>View of a street blocked with garbage bags during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on May 2, 2017 <span>Copyright AFP/File FEDERICO PARRA</span> </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/c9756615b2a1417fd0a6fa38543ba6c2f23eda76.jpg" width="694" height="768"><figcaption>Venezuela deadly violence <span>Copyright AFP/File Gal ROMA</span> </figcaption><img src="https://desiforce.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/3c46979bcc483bfed8c8bee6bf77ca1df2d4dcaf.jpg" width="768" height="362"><figcaption>Venezuela, Maduro's rise to power. <span>Copyright AFP/File Gustavo IZUS, Anella RETA</span> </figcaption></figure>