Venezue­lans head­ing to polls

Key vote comes af­ter four months of protests, threats

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Michael Weissenstein

CARA­CAS, VENEZUELA» De­spite four months of deadly protests and the threat of U.S. sanc­tions, Venezuela on Satur­day found it­self 24 hours away from a con­sol­i­da­tion of govern­ment power that ap­peared cer­tain to drag the OPEC na­tion deeper into a cri­sis that has en­tire neigh­bor­hoods bat­tling po­lice and paramil­i­taries while the poor root for scraps in piles of trash.

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 late Fri­day af­ter­noon and lasted into the night. The months of vi­o­lence have left at least 113 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.

The rest of the cap­i­tal was calm. Across the city, res­i­dents said they wanted Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro out of power but didn’t want to risk their lives or liveli­hoods tak­ing on his so­cial­ist govern­ment and its back­ers.

“I have a young daugh­ter, I can’t risk any­thing hap­pen­ing to me,” said Maria Llanes, a 55year-old flower-store worker who lives in a south Cara­cas neigh­bor­hood dom­i­nated by armed pro-govern­ment mo­tor­cy­cle gangs.

“What do I do, protest in this neigh­bor­hood, so that they kill me? This area’s run by a mafia loyal to the money the govern­ment pays them.”

Maduro called for a mas­sive turnout Sun­day for a vote to elect mem­bers of an as­sem­bly tasked with rewrit­ing the 18year-old 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 many fear will be a sin­gle-party au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem.

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, says the as­sem­bly will strip leg­is­la­tors in the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled Na­tional As­sem­bly 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.”

“On July 30, the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly will hap­pen,” Maduro said Fri­day at a sub­si­dized hous­ing cer­e­mony.

“I’ve been loyal to Chavez’s legacy. Now it’s your turn.”

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 Sun­day’s vote.

Opin­ion polls show that more than 70 per­cent of the coun­try is op­posed to Sun­day’s vote. But as many as half of all Venezue­lans sup­port nei­ther the govern­ment nor the op­po­si­tion.

Ari­ana Cubillos, The As­so­ci­ated Press

An anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tor pushes a old re­frig­er­a­tor to make a bar­ri­cade Satur­day to protest against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro's plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion in Cara­cas, Venezuela. Vot­ers will go to the polls Sun­day.

Ron­aldo Schemidt, Afp/getty Im­ages

An anti-govern­ment ac­tivist is ar­rested dur­ing clashes in Cara­cas on Fri­day.

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