Showdown looms in crisis-hit Venezuela

2017-07-28 17:14
Members of the National Guard try to arrest anti-government activists during clashes in Caracas on the second day of a 48-hour general strike called by the opposition. (Juan Barreto,  AFP)

Members of the National Guard try to arrest anti-government activists during clashes in Caracas on the second day of a 48-hour general strike called by the opposition. (Juan Barreto, AFP)

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Caracas - Venezuela careened towards a showdown Friday between anti-government protesters and security forces, as the death toll from months of demonstrations against embattled President Nicolas Maduro mounted - as did international concern about the spiralling violence.

The opposition has called fresh nationwide demonstrations in defiance of a new government ban on rallies ahead of Sunday's controversial vote to elect a body to rewrite the constitution.

Four months of protests against the unpopular leftist Maduro have already claimed 113 lives, according to prosecutors - eight of them during a two-day general strike that ended Thursday.

Among the dead was a police officer who was shot in the head in the northwestern town of Ejido, prosecutors said Friday.

Tensions went up a notch on Thursday when Maduro issued a decree banning protests and warning that anyone who marches against his planned election of a "Constituent Assembly" risks up to 10 years in prison.

The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, shot back on Twitter: "The regime declared we can't demonstrate... We will respond with the TAKING OF VENEZUELA."

It called mass protests for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"The whole country must tell the world this Constituent Assembly has no legitimacy," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara told a press conference.

Fear of open conflict

Maduro countered by urging the opposition to "abandon the road to insurrection."

He urged immediate dialogue, but signalled he was not backing down. Any talks, he said, should happen "before the election and installation of the Constituent Assembly."

Fears of open civil conflict have prompted thousands of Venezuelans to join an exodus into neighbouring Colombia.

International concern has mounted, with the United States, European Union, United Nations and major Latin American nations urging Maduro to halt his plan.

The United States has imposed sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials to try to force a change - measures Maduro said were "illegal" and "insolent."

On Thursday, the United States ordered relatives of embassy staff in Caracas to leave the country, and authorized US government employees to leave on a voluntary basis, citing "social unrest, violent crime, and pervasive food and medicine shortages."

Canada warned its nationals against non-essential travel to Venezuela and urged citizens already there to leave.

Civil disobedience

Venezuela's opposition, which controls the National Assembly, has urged civil disobedience against what it terms Maduro's dictatorship.

It is pushing on with its own strategy of trying to force Maduro from power through early elections.

Some 70% of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

Skirmishes in the street between supporters of the opposition and the Maduro government have become commonplace.

Volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and homemade bombs arced through the air in the capital during the strike.

Barricades made from debris littered the eastern part of the city, with signs reading "No more dictatorships!"

"Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?" asked Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.

Shrinking economy

Maduro accuses Washington of fomenting unrest against him, aided by the opposition. As public support for his government slips away, the former bus driver has relied increasingly on the Venezuelan military to hold onto power.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are suffering under a long-running economic crisis.

The oil export-dependent economy will shrink 12 percent this year, after a contraction of 18 percent last year, the International Monetary Fund said.

Inflation is projected to top 720 percent.

Venezuela's currency reserves have dwindled to under $10 billion as the government keeps up debt repayments at the expense of imports to stave off a devastating default.

The country's isolation increased as more airlines cut service to and from Venezuela.

Avianca, a major Colombian carrier, said on Thursday it was ending flights immediately, moving forward a suspension originally announced for mid-August.

US airline Delta is also expected to suspend services from September. The company declined to comment on the move.

Read more on:    nicolas maduro  |  venezuela

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