Maduro presses on with vote de­spite protests, crit­i­cism

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro was push­ing for­ward yes­ter­day with a con­tro­ver­sial week­end vote, de­spite grow­ing do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion, in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion and deadly street protests. On Fri­day, his forces faced small groups of pro­test­ers de­fy­ing a ban he had im­posed on demon­stra­tions against the elec­tion he has called Sun­day to choose a new body to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion.

Block­ades went up across a few roads in Cara­cas and in a bor­der town with Colom­bia, San Cris­to­bal as well as in Mara­caibo and Guayana, but the scale was far less than the mass protests seen ear­lier this week be­fore the ban took ef­fect. “It’s nor­mal that there’s fear, but peo­ple are still com­ing out into the streets de­spite it all,” a law­maker in the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Na­tional As­sem­bly, Freddy Gue­vara, said at one of the Cara­cas protests.

Maduro on Thurs­day warned that any­one tak­ing part in protests against his “Con­stituent As­sem­bly” risked up to 10 years in prison. The threat ap­peared to dampen pub­lic anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tions of the sort that, in the past four months, have led to 113 deaths-eight of them dur­ing a two-day gen­eral strike that ended Thurs­day. The most re­cent re­ported fa­tal­ity oc­curred Fri­day when an 18-year old pro­tester was killed in San Cris­to­bal. Hu­man rights or­ga­niz­ers said an­other ac­tivist, a 23-year-old vi­o­lin­ist fa­mous for play­ing at anti-govern­ment protests, had been ar­rested in Cara­cas. An op­po­si­tion mayor, Al­fredo Ramos, was also ar­rested for not lift­ing bar­ri­cades un­der a court or­der. Mean­while, in­ter­na­tional cen­sure of Maduro re­mained fierce. US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence spoke by tele­phone to a de­tained prom­i­nent Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who early this month was moved from prison to house ar­rest.

Maduro play­ing his ‘card’

In im­plicit sup­port for the op­po­si­tion, Pence praised Lopez’s “courage.” He also called for the “un­con­di­tional re­lease of all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Venezuela, free and fair elec­tions, restora­tion of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, and re­spect for hu­man rights in Venezuela,” a state­ment from his of­fice said. The United States this week im­posed sanc­tions on 13 cur­rent and for­mer Venezue­lan of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing po­lice and army chiefs, over Maduro’s plan. Colom­bia’s Pres­i­dent, Juan Manuel San­tos, said his coun­try would not rec­og­nize the re­sults of Sun­day’s elec­tion in Venezuela, call­ing the ba­sis of the Con­stituent As­sem­bly “spu­ri­ous.” Yet Maduro has re­mained de­ter­mined to see through his plan, with back­ing from a loyal mil­i­tary. “We have a card to play: a card that will win this game. And that card is the Na­tional Con­stituent As­sem­bly,” he said.

He urged the op­po­si­tion to stop its “in­sur­rec­tion” and hold talks in­stead. The left­ist pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly ac­cused the US of fo­ment­ing the un­rest against him. The new as­sem­bly would com­prise 545 cit­i­zens cho­sen from across the coun­try, and from so­ci­etal sec­tors over which Maduro’s govern­ment holds in­flu­ence.

The op­po­si­tion, which brands the elec­tion of the body a ploy by an un­pop­u­lar “dic­ta­tor” to cling to power, has called for a boy­cott of the vote. Some 70 per­cent of Venezue­lans op­pose plans for the con­stituent as­sem­bly, and 80 per­cent re­ject Maduro’s lead­er­ship, ac­cord­ing to the polling firm Datanal­i­sis.

‘Tense’ sit­u­a­tion

An elec­toral ex­pert, Eu­ge­nio Martinez, noted that most of Venezuela’s 20 mil­lion vot­ers would be able to vote twice, rais­ing ques­tions about the va­lid­ity of fi­nal turnout and bal­lot­ing fig­ures, es­pe­cially with no for­eign elec­tion ob­servers present. 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 re­main an­other three months be­fore they had to leave. — AFP

CARA­CAS: An anti-govern­ment ac­tivist is ar­rested dur­ing clashes. — AFP

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