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Venezuela crisis enters new phase with today’s vote

Published:Saturday | July 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
A poster that shows some of Venezuela's opposition leaders holding a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: "that constituent assembly will not pass" is displayed on a wall near Altamira Square in Caracas, Venezuela last Friday.



 Despite four months of deadly protests and the threat of United States sanctions, Venezuela today finds itself hours away from a consolidation of government power that appeared certain to drag the OPEC nation deeper into a crisis that has entire neighbourhoods battling police and paramilitaries while the poor root for scraps in piles of trash.

In the opposition strongholds of relatively wealthy eastern Caracas, skinny teenagers manned barricades of tree branches, garbage and barbed wire torn from nearby buildings.

Clashes with police began late last Friday afternoon and lasted into the night. The months of violence have left at least 113 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.

The rest of the capital was calm. Across the city, residents said they wanted President Nicolas Maduro out of power but didn't want to risk their lives or livelihoods taking on his socialist government and its backers.

Maduro called for a massive turnout today for a vote to elect members of an assembly tasked with rewriting the 18-year-old constitution created under President Hugo Chavez. The opposition is boycotting because, it says, the vote called by Maduro was structured to ensure that his ruling socialist party dominates.

The opposition says the government is so afraid of low turnout that it's threatening to fire state workers who don't vote, and take away social benefits like subsidised food from recipients who stay away from the polls.

By Wednesday, the resulting National Constituent Assembly will become one of the most powerful organs in the country, able to root out the last vestiges of democratic checks and balances in favour of what many fear will be a single-party authoritarian system.

First Lady Cilia Flores, a candidate for the assembly, said it would create a commission to ensure those responsible for the political upheaval "pay and learn their lesson."

Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of Venezuela's socialist party, says the assembly will strip legislators in the opposition-controlled National Assembly of their immunity from prosecution. He said the office of Venezuela's chief prosecutor, who recently became one of Maduro's most outspoken critics, would be "turned upside down."

Washington has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on members of Maduro's administration and US Vice President Mike Pence last Friday promised "strong and swift economic actions" after Sunday's vote.

He didn't say whether the US would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to undermine Maduro but cause an even deeper humanitarian crisis here.

Opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent of the country is opposed to today's vote. But as many as half of all Venezuelans support neither the government nor the opposition -- a phenomenon evident in the glum paralysis that has gripped much of the country as protesters and police wage nightly battles.