CARACAS Venezuela’s opposition blocked streets in Caracas on Tuesday to denounce a decision by unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro to create a new super-body known as a “constituent assembly,” a move critics say is a veiled attempt to cling to power by avoiding elections.
After a month of near-daily protests by opponents demanding early general elections, Maduro announced on Monday he planned to set up a new popular assembly with the ability to rewrite the constitution.
The government says the opposition is promoting street violence and refusing dialogue, so it has no choice but to shake up Venezuela’s power structure.
Critics of the president say he is increasingly dictatorial and plans to staff the new assembly with supporters and avoid elections he would likely lose amid a crushing recession and raging inflation in the oil-producing country.
Regional elections that were scheduled for last year have yet to be called and a presidential election is due for next year.
Asked about elections in an interview on state television on Tuesday, the Socialist Party official in charge of the constituent assembly said the electoral schedule would be respected. However the official, Elias Jaua, also suggested that the current political turmoil was hindering setting a quick date.
“One of the aims of the constituent assembly is to seek the conditions of stability to be able to go to those electoral processes,” Jaua said. “Those conditions of normality do not exist,” he added, citing protests and institutional clashes between authorities and the opposition-led National Assembly.
‘MORE FUEL TO THE FIRE’
Maduro’s critics worry the new body will further sideline the current opposition-led legislature and pave the way for undemocratic changes to the constitution.
The controversial decision was likely to add more energy to anti-government protests, already the most sustained since 2014, as they seek to end 18 years of rule by socialists that began under late leader Hugo Chavez.
Opposition barricades snarled traffic in and around Caracas on Tuesday, with demonstrators using garbage bags, branches, bottles, and cardboard boxes to block roads under a light drizzle.
“We don’t believe in Maduro’s fake peace, what he’s done is add more fuel to the fire,” said Jesus Gutierrez, 64, who was with about 100 demonstrators blocking one of the main avenues in the capital. “The people have to react, as they have been.”
Some 29 people have been killed, more than 400 people have been injured and hundreds more arrested since the anti-Maduro unrest began in early April.
The government has responded with shows of force by security forces and counter-demonstrations by Maduro supporters. At least 13 people were killed and 37 injured when a bus crashed while carrying state workers back to Bolivar state after a May Day rally organized by the government, according to the state governor.
While many details remain unclear about the constituent assembly, Maduro said political parties would not participate and that only up to half of its 500 members would be elected.
“According to the government, it would have all powers,” said Jose Ignacio Hernandez, law professor at Venezuela’s Catholic University. “It could dissolve the National Assembly, name a new electoral council, dismiss governors, and dismiss mayors.”
The opposition planned more marches on Wednesday.