Venezuelan opposition calls for nationwide strike

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National Assembly first Vice President Freddy Guevara speaks to the press accompanied by fellow lawmakers in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 17, 2017. Venezuelan opposition leaders called Monday for escalated street protests after more than 7 million people rejected a government plan to rewrite the constitution and consolidate power over the country, which has been stricken by shortages and inflation and riven by more than 100 days of clashes between protesters and police. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

(AP) — Venezuelan opposition leaders called Monday for a 24-hour nationwide strike to increase pressure on the socialist government after more than 7 million people rejected a plan to rewrite the constitution and consolidate the ruling party’s power over the country, which has been stricken by shortages and inflation and riven by more than 100 days of clashes between protesters and police.

The opposition also said the country’s National Assembly, which it controls, would name new members to the government-dominated Supreme Court, setting up a showdown with President Nicolas Maduro, whose party controls nearly all other state institutions. Opposition parties also plan to sign a declaration calling for the formation of an alternative “government of national unity,” a step toward total rejection of government authority.

“Overall the package is pretty radical, especially the idea of a parallel government,” said David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela. “I think it could lead to real chaos within the government.”

He noted, however, that the opposition moves were to be implemented in phases over the next week, starting with the nationwide strike on Thursday, giving both sides the opportunity to negotiate possible concessions.

Earlier in the day, opposition parties had floated the idea of escalating more than three months of street protests, which have left at least 93 people dead and 1,500 wounded. More than 500 protesters and government opponents have been jailed.

“Right now we have to escalate and deepen this street movement,” National Assembly President Julio Borges told local radio station Exitos ahead of Monday’s opposition announcement, which was delayed for hours as government opponents discussed their next steps behind closed doors.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference, opposition leader Freddy Guevara made little mention of more protests, however, a sign that the opposition had decided to change tactics in the wake of Sunday’s vote.

“We call on the whole country to launch a 24-hour national strike this Thursday, a massive, non-violent protest, as a way to pressure the government and to prepare for the final steps, which will be next week, to confront this fraud … and to restore constitutional order,” he said. He didn’t say what the final steps would be.

The opposition said 7,186,170 Venezuelans participated in Sunday’s symbolic referendum rejecting Maduro’s plans for the July 30 election of an assembly that would remake the country’s political system. Maduro’s allies have called on the assembly to impose executive branch authority over the few remaining institutions outside the control of Venezuela’s socialist ruling party.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos planned to discuss the Venezuelan crisis during a visit with President Raul Castro of Cuba, Venezuela’s closest regional ally, Colombia’s foreign minister said from Havana.

“It would be hard for two presidents to meet these days without discussing Venezuela, because of its importance and the concern the whole continent has about Venezuela,” Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said. “The situation in Venezuela will be part of the conversation with President Castro, seeing how we can come to a solution, that dialogue is re-established, that there are paths to a deal.”

Colombia has dealt with rising tensions and a growing number of people crossing the border from Venezuela as the crisis in the oil-rich country deepened.

In Washington, the Trump administration called on Venezuela’s government to cancel plans to form an assembly to rewrite the constitution, and to instead hold “free and fair elections.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S. congratulated the Venezuelan people “for the huge turnout in the referendum” and the “unmistakable statement that they made and delivered to their government.”

He said the Trump administration condemned the “violence inflicted by government thugs against innocent voters and efforts by the government to erode democracy in Venezuela.”

Sunday’s vote was a strong but not overwhelming showing that fell short of the 7.7 million votes garnered by the opposition in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought Maduro to power in 2013. Opposition leaders said that was because they were only able to set up 2,000 polling places in a symbolic exercise the government labeled as illegitimate.

Some supporters said they were disappointed.

“I thought it was going to be more,” said Mariela Arana, a 56-year-old school counselor. “But these 7 million people spoke and it was plenty.”

Sunday’s vote was marred by violence when a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site at a church in western Caracas.

The opposition only released turnout numbers, not tallies of responses, although virtually all who voted were believed to have answered “yes” to the central rejection of the constitutional rewrite.

In smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters also went to polling stations on Sunday in a rehearsal for the July 30 vote.

Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the National Assembly and holds three of 23 governorships. The country’s chief prosecutor has recently broken with the ruling party.

Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.

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Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn

Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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