Venezuela en­ters cru­cial week in bat­tle over con­sti­tu­tion re­write

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Pro- and anti-govern­ment groups are bat­tling fiercely for pub­lic sup­port over a con­tested plan by em­bat­tled Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro to have a new body elected this month to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion. The op­po­si­tion, en­er­gized by the re­lease from jail of one of its em­blem­atic lead­ers, Leopoldo Lopez, is lead­ing the charge against the new as­sem­bly to be cho­sen in a July 30 elec­tion. On Mon­day it or­ga­nized a demon­stra­tion in Caracas, dur­ing which dozens of pro­test­ers and some se­cu­rity force per­son­nel con­fronting them were in­jured. Un­rest also spread to other cities.

On Sun­day, the op­po­si­tion will hold its own sym­bolic pub­lic vote on whether the new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly should be es­tab­lished. “This pop­u­la­tion has de­cided to con­tinue the fight for lib­erty,” one op­po­si­tion law­maker tak­ing part, Freddy Gue­vara, said. “Sun­day will be the big­gest act of civil dis­obe­di­ence in Venezuela’s his­tory.” With Maduro de­ter­mined to see through the process-which crit­ics view as a way for him to by­pass the op­po­si­tion-led par­lia­ment-there are fears of more vi­o­lence in the streets.

Since April 1, more than 90 peo­ple have been killed dur­ing protests. The lat­est was a 16-yearold killed Mon­day in La Is­abel­ica, a town in north­ern Venezuela’s Carabobo state, author­i­ties said on Twit­ter. In what could be an omi­nous sign of vi­o­lence yet to come, a can­di­date for Maduro’s con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly was shot to death Mon­day in Mara­cay, cap­i­tal of the cen­tral state of Aragua. Ac­cord­ing to the Te­lesur news chan­nel, Jose Luis Ri­vas, 42, was gunned down at a cam­paign event.

Dic­ta­tor­ship

The Venezue­lan pres­i­dent, who rules over a once flush oil-rich na­tion re­duced to penury, has been ac­cused by the in­flu­en­tial Catholic Church of turn­ing the coun­try into a “mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship.” How­ever Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, a long­time ally, on Mon­day praised Maduro in a tele­phone call for “his ef­forts in main­tain­ing sta­bil­ity and peace in the coun­try,” ac­cord­ing to a Venezue­lan for­eign min­istry state­ment. Putin also en­dorsed Maduro’s al­le­ga­tions that he was the vic­tim of a for­eign plot to top­ple him, the state­ment said.

Campaigning for Venezuela’s con­tro­ver­sial con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly is to end on July 27. The op­po­si­tion coali­tion has said it will not field any can­di­dates in an elec­tion it de­nounces as a “fraud.” It has been bol­stered by Lopez’s exit on Satur­day from prison, where he had been kept since 2014 on charges of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. He is serv­ing the rest of his 14-year sen­tence un­der home de­ten­tion in the cap­i­tal, although his lawyers said they are look­ing to have that re­stric­tion lifted too, so he is com­pletely free.

On Sun­day—the 100th day of the protest wave against Maduro — 4,000 de­mon­stra­tors marched against the pres­i­dent, some of them wear­ing T-shirts with Lopez’s face and car­ry­ing ban­ners that read: “One hun­dred days and I con­tinue to rebel against tyranny.” “I re­it­er­ate my com­mit­ment to fight­ing un­til Venezuela’s free­dom is won,” Lopez said in a state­ment read by a leader of his party. The op­po­si­tion also said it would con­tinue to press for the lib­er­a­tion of 400 other de­tainees it de­scribes as “po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers,” but who the govern­ment in­sists are com­mon crim­i­nals.

Pos­si­ble talks?

One an­a­lyst, Luis Vi­cente Leon, said switch­ing Lopez from prison to house ar­rest sug­gested the govern­ment hoped to lower ten­sions, and that po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions now seemed pos­si­ble. Maduro es­pe­cially wanted to avoid frac­tures within the army, with­out which his grip on power would end, he said. Other ob­servers noted that the op­po­si­tion leader’s re­lease came three days af­ter pro-Maduro mil­i­tants wield­ing sticks and pipes stormed par­lia­ment and beat law­mak­ers, in­jur­ing at least seven, dur­ing a nine-hour as­sault.

Maduro pub­licly con­demned the vi­o­lence and said he had or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The of­fi­cer in charge of par­lia­men­tary se­cu­rity was on Mon­day charged with hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions for al­low­ing the at­tack to hap­pen. In­side Maduro’s own camp, there are voices of dis­sent. The coun­try’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Luisa Ortega, a strong sup­porter of Maduro’s late pre­de­ces­sor and men­tor Hugo Chavez, has come out against the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly and crit­i­cized govern­ment and mil­i­tary ac­tions.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court is hold­ing le­gal pro­ceed­ings against Ortega and is due to rule this week on whether to sus­pend her from of­fice and put her on trial. A group­ing of Latin Amer­i­can and Span­ish at­tor­neys gen­eral, AIAMP, is to hold an ex­tra­or­di­nary meet­ing in Ar­gentina on Thurs­day to dis­cuss Ortega’s sit­u­a­tion. The body has al­ready held two sim­i­lar gath­er­ings on the same is­sue. In the most re­cent one last month, it voiced sup­port for Ortega and slammed the “il­le­gal” pres­sure against her. —AFP

CARACAS: Mem­bers of the Na­tional Guard are caught up in a blast dur­ing protests in Caracas.—AFP

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