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.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN

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.”

AP/AR­I­ANA CUBILLOS

Peo­ple walk Sat­ur­day near a bar­ri­cade erected by anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tors in the Petare neigh­bor­hood of Caracas, Venezuela.

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