Venezuela opposition gears for huge rally against plan to rewrite constitution

Venezuela’s angry opposition is set to hold a huge protest rally Wednesday against unpopular President Nicolas Maduro’s proposal to rewrite the constitution, dismissing it as a ploy to avoid holding elections and cling to power.

In an oil-rich country saddled with shortages of food, medicine and such basics as soap and toilet paper, a steady wave of protests against the socialist Maduro and his government has been on for more than a month.

And the death toll from violence at the rallies rose to 29 Tuesday with word from the government that a young man it said had been looting was shot by a shopkeeper in the northern city of Valencia.

Barricades of rubbish and bins blocked streets in Venezuela on Tuesday in big protests that seem likely to intensify after Maduro announced his idea of electing a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

That body would not include political parties with seats in congress but rather representatives of social sectors such as workers, farmers and other communities.

His plan, announced Monday, has inflamed the opposition, which is calling for even bigger demonstrations to demand elections. Wednesday’s rally is being described as a “mega protest.”

“The idea is 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.

“We have to up the pressure in the streets,” he said Tuesday.

The Venezuelan opposition says the gambit further weakens the chances of holding a vote to remove Maduro, whom they blame for the economic crisis that has sparked the food shortages and rioting.

A presidential election is supposed to be held next year. The opposition has been pushing for months to oust Maduro from power through a recall vote. But that effort stalled.

Polls show that more than 70 percent of people interviewed do not support Maduro, a former bus driver hand-picked by the late Hugo Chavez to succeed him.

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.”

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.

He has vowed to defend the socialist “revolution” launched by Chavez, who oversaw the writing of the current constitution. Chavez died in 2013.

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.

“This constituent assembly Maduro wants is a clear betrayal of Chavez and the people.”

Fresh violence erupted Tuesday as armed men clashed with riot police who fired tear gas in Caracas, where hundreds of people blocked streets.

State ombudsman Tarek William Saab said on Twitter that masked men threw Molotov cocktails at a building housing a branch of his department in Valencia.

A stun grenade reportedly went off in the courtyard of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which formally rejected Maduro’s idea of a constituent assembly.

– ‘Step backwards’ –

The United States 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.

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.

Many workers walked to work on Tuesday as the protests disrupted transport and metro stations were closed.

“Normally it takes me half an hour to get to work. Today it was two hours,” said David Ramos, a 58-year-old laborer.

“But you have to protest. There is no food or medicine.”

But Caracas bus driver Luis Guillermo Perez, 52, kept on supporting Maduro, as the protests forced him to take detours.

“I’ve had to juggle things around to work today and the passengers getting on are tense,” he said.

“Why are they blocking everything? They demand freedom and they are denying us freedom of movement. People are anxious.”