Venezuelan leader vows to punish foes; charter-panel vote today
The opposition is boycotting because, it says, the vote called by Maduro was structured to ensure that his ruling socialist party dominates.
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolas Maduro pledged Saturday to go after his political foes with the virtually unlimited powers of a constitutional assembly being elected today, while Venezuela’s opposition made a lastditch effort to flood streets across the country in defiance of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police.
In an address on staterun television, Maduro made clear he wants the assembly to strip opposition legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution and jail at least one.
“This little Hitler has his cell guaranteed!” Maduro shouted, using his frequent nickname for Freddy Guevara, a hard-line opposition leader and one the highest-profile organizers of four months of protests against the government.
In the opposition strongholds of relatively wealthy eastern Caracas, skinny teenagers manned barricades of tree branches, garbage and barbed wire torn from nearby buildings. Clashes with police began Friday afternoon and lasted into the night.
The months of violence have left at least 113 people dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.
Maduro called for people to turn out today for a vote to elect members of an assembly that is to rewrite the 18-yearold constitution created under President Hugo Chavez. The opposition is boycotting because, it says, the vote called by Maduro was structured to ensure that his ruling socialist party dominates.
The opposition says the government is so afraid of low turnout that it’s threatening to fire state workers who don’t vote and take away social benefits like subsidized food from recipients who stay away from the polls. By Wednesday, the resulting National Constituent Assembly will become one of the most powerful organs in the country, able to root out the last vestiges of democratic checks and balances in favor of what critics fear will be a single-party authoritarian system.
Maduro indicated he is eager to prosecute many more members of the opposition parties that control a handful of state governments along with the National Assembly, providing one of the few remaining checks on the power of the socialist party that has ruled the nation for nearly two decades.
“The right wing already has its prison cell waiting,” the president said. “All the criminals will go to prison for the crimes they’ve committed.”
First lady Cilia Flores, a candidate for the assembly, said it would create a commission to ensure those responsible for the political upheaval “pay and learn their lesson.” Diosdado Cabello, first vice president of Venezuela’s socialist party, said legislators in the opposition-controlled National Assembly will be stripped of their immunity from prosecution. He said the office of Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, who recently became one of Maduro’s most outspoken critics, would be “turned upside down.”
Washington has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on members of Maduro’s administration, and Vice President Mike Pence on Friday promised “strong and swift economic actions” after today’s vote. He didn’t say whether the U.S. would sanction Venezuelan oil imports, a measure with the potential to undermine Maduro but deepen Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
Opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of the country is opposed to the election. But as many as half of all Venezuelans support neither the government nor the opposition — a phenomenon evident in the glum paralysis that has gripped much of the country as protesters and police wage nightly battles. While Venezuelans bitterly complain about shortages of food and medicine, few still respond to opposition calls for protests, a far cry from early demonstrations that saw hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets.
“Many strange things have taken place this week that makes you wonder what is going on with the opposition. I don’t know. The opposition is at home, the opposition is hiding,” Caracas resident Abed Mondabed said.
The opposition has organized a series of work stoppages and a July 16 protest vote it says drew more than 7.5 million symbolic votes against the constitutional assembly. It called late Friday for marches on the day of the assembly vote.
In the eastern neighborhood of Bello Monte, the site of fierce battles with police in recent days, a 54-year-old shop owner named Ricardo watched masked adolescents block a road with dumpsters as a soot-smeared, emaciated man picked through their contents for bits of food.
Ricardo, who declined to provide his last name for fear of government retaliation, said he felt the vote meant the last chance for political resolution of Venezuela’s problems was gone, ushering in an even more violent phase.
“Negotiations have come to an end,” he said. “The fight will continue and all of a sudden it could be a lot tougher.”
People walk Saturday near a barricade erected by anti-government demonstrators in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela.