Venezuela protesters block Caracas streets in showdown with Maduro
Protesters took over streets in Caracas on Friday in a showdown with President Nicolas Maduro’s government, as the crisis gripping Venezuela turned more deadly ahead of a controversial weekend election that has earned international scorn.
As the rain fell, small groups blocked roads in the city, which was returning to activity after a general strike on Wednesday and Thursday. Similar barricades were also seen in San Cristobal, a town on the border with Colombia.
The opposition called the demonstrations in defiance of a government ban on rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote to choose a “Constituent Assembly” to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.
Four months of protests against the unpopular leftist Maduro have so far 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 rose on Thursday when Maduro issued his 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: “We will respond with the TAKING OF VENEZUELA.” It called mass protests for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“We have to be ready for the conflict to deepen,” an opposition lawmaker, Freddy Guevara, said. “The regime has given no signs it is going to suspend this process.”
Fear of open conflict
Maduro has urging the opposition to “abandon the road to insurrection” and begin talks with his government. But he has repeated that the election will go ahead, protected by the military that has remained loyal to him.
Fears of open civil conflict have prompted thousands of Venezuelans to join an exodus into Colombia.
The neighboring country said it would give 150,000 Venezuelans who had overstayed permission to visit another three months before they had to leave.
International concern has grown, with the United States, European Union, United Nations and major Latin American nations urging Maduro to halt his plan.
On Thursday, the United States ordered families of its embassy staff in Venezuela to leave, and it and Canada warned against their citizens making non-essential travel to the country.
The US has imposed sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials to try to force a change — measures Maduro said were “illegal” and “insolent.”
The United Nations human rights office said it was “deeply concerned” about the “very tense and very difficult situation” in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s opposition, which controls the National Assembly, is pushing on with a strategy of trying to force Maduro from power through early elections.
Some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, and 80 percent reject Maduro’s leadership, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.
Some in Maduro’s administration have broken ranks, most prominently his attorney general, who has become a vociferous opponent in office. Some diplomats have resigned, including one at the UN and one at the embassy in Panama.
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, with shortages of food and other basic goods.
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 has increased as more airlines cut service to and from Venezuela.
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