Venezuela cri­sis en­ters new phase with to­day’s vote

The Sentinel-Record - - HOT SPRINGS/FYI - 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 55-year-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 to­day for a vote to elect mem­bers of an as­sem­bly tasked with rewrit­ing the 18-year-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 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 cause an even deeper hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis here.

Opin­ion polls show that more than 70 per­cent of the coun­try is op­posed to to­day’s vote. 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 mas­sive 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.”

The As­so­ci­ated Press

BAR­RI­CADE: An anti-govern­ment demon­stra­tor pushes a old re­frig­er­a­tor to make a bar­ri­cade to protest against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro's plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion on Satur­day in 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.

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