Venezuela strike erupts into spo­radic vi­o­lence

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - WORLD/OBITUARIES - BY MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN AND FABIOLA SANCHEZ

A na­tion­wide strike against plans to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion shut down much of Venezue­lan’s cap­i­tal Thurs­day be­fore erupt­ing into spo­radic vi­o­lence when pro­test­ers clashed with riot po­lice and burned a post of­fice near the head­quar­ters of the main state-run broad­caster.

Wealth­ier, pro-op­po­si­tion neigh­bour­hoods of eastern Caracas were shut­tered and silent un­til early af­ter­noon, when im­pro­vised block­ades left them al­most en­tirely cut them off from the rest of the city. Groups of masked young men set fire to a hand­ful of block­ades and hurled stones at riot po­lice, who fired back tear gas.

A pub­lic trans­port strike ap­peared to have halted nearly all bus traf­fic and thou­sands of pri­vate busi­nesses de­fied govern­ment de­mands to stay open as op­po­nents of Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro called the first ma­jor na­tional strike since a 2002 stop­page that failed to top­ple Maduro’s pre­de­ces­sor Hugo Chavez.

Maduro said on na­tional tele­vi­sion that he’ll press ahead with plans to re­write the nation’s con­sti­tu­tion and said that hun­dreds of Venezuela’s largest com­pa­nies are func­tion­ing “at 100 per cent” de­spite the strike. The claim could not be im­me­di­ately con­firmed.

In neigh­bour­hoods of west­ern Caracas tra­di­tion­ally loyal to the rul­ing party, some stores were closed but bak­eries, fruit stands and other shops were open and hun­dreds of people were in the streets, al­though foot and ve­hi­cle traf­fic were about half of what they would be on a nor­mal week­day.

In the rest of the city, res­i­dents com­mented that the streets were emp­tier than on a typ­i­cal Sun­day.

The 24-hour strike was meant as an ex­pres­sion of na­tional dis­ap­proval of Maduro’s plan to con­vene a con­sti­tu­tional assem­bly that would re­shape the Venezue­lan sys­tem to con­sol­i­date the rul­ing party’s power over the few in­sti­tu­tions that re­main out­side its con­trol. The op­po­si­tion is boy­cotting a July 30 elec­tion to se­lect mem­bers of the assem­bly.

“Defini­tively, we need a change,” said teacher Kathe­rina Al­varez. “The main ob­jec­tive is for people to see how dis­sat­is­fied people are.”

The coun­try’s largest busi­ness group, Fede­ca­ma­ras, has cau­tiously avoided full en­dorse­ment of the strike, but its mem­bers have told em­ploy­ees that they won’t be pun­ished for com­ing to work. Fede­ca­ma­ras played a cen­tral role in the months-long 2002-2003 strike that Chavez’s po­lit­i­cal ri­vals and op­po­nents in Venezuela’s pri­vate busi­ness sec­tor or­ches­trated in an at­tempt to top­ple him.

Chavez emerged from the strike and ex­erted con­trol over the pri­vate sec­tor with years of ex­pro­pri­a­tions, strict reg­u­la­tions and im­ports bought with oil money and meant to re­place lo­cal pro­duc­tion.

AP PHOTO

Pro-govern­ment sup­port­ers con­front anti-govern­ment pro­test­ers in Caracas, Venezuela, Thurs­day.

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