Opposition supporters clash with security forces during protests against unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro in Maracaibo, Venezuela. File Picture: REUTERS
Opposition supporters clash with security forces during protests against unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro in Maracaibo, Venezuela. File Picture: REUTERS

Caracas — A general strike entered its second day in Venezuela on Thursday as street protests left two more people dead in an intensifying showdown over President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to rewrite the nation’s constitution.

Prosecutors said a man was shot to death in the west of the country, and a 14-year-old boy was killed in Caracas’s Petare neighbourhood, a sprawling slum in the eastern end of the city.

With the approach of controversial elections on Sunday of a 545-seat constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, the opposition and the Maduro government skirmished in the streets. Barricades made from debris dotted eastern Caracas and signs were up that read "No more dictatorships!"

Maduro says a new constitution is the only way to bring peace, but the opposition is vehemently opposed, fearing a power grab to keep the embattled leftist government in power. "What happens if they impose the constituent assembly? The crisis will worsen. Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?" said Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.

The latest deaths in clashes with security forces raised the number of people killed since April 1 to 105.

In Washington, the US treasury unveiled a list of 13 current and former officials, including the interior minister, senior military brass, the president of the electoral council, and the finance chief of state oil company PDVSA, whose US assets would be frozen.

Maduro called the US punishment "illegal, insolent and unprecedented". "Who do these imperialists in the US think they are? The government of the world?" he said in a speech. But in his country, where there are widespread shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, protesters are showing their discontent with Maduro’s leadership. Organisers claimed 92% support for the walkout.

Maduro accuses the US of fomenting the unrest against him and his government, with the help of the conservative opposition. The Venezuelan military has declared its loyalty to him, but some 70% of Venezuelans are opposed to the constituent assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

The hardening political struggle has deepened fears that months of street violence could worsen. The opposition has planned another major demonstration in the capital on Friday. Thousands of Venezuelans loaded with heavy bags have crossed the border into Colombia this week, fleeing the unrest. "The elections are on Sunday and we really don’t know what will happen," said Maria de los Angeles Pichardo, who left with her husband and son. "To be safe, we prefer to cross."

Who do these imperialists in the US think they are? The government of the world?
President Nicolas Maduro

Venezuelans remaining in their country believe ousting Maduro is their only hope for survival. "We keep getting worse and worse off, with long lines and shortages. I think I’ll strike for 48 hours," said one Caracas resident, Maria Auxiliadora.

Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lépez made a direct appeal to the military early on Wednesday to withdraw its support from Maduro’s plan, which he called a "constitutional fraud" aimed at eliminating democratic rule.

In announcing the US sanctions, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said America was "standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy". He warned that anybody elected to the constituent assembly could also be slapped with US sanctions.

Thirteen countries in the 35-member Organisation of American States, a regional political bloc, have urged Maduro to suspend Sunday’s election. Nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the US and Canada, said the vote amounted to a "dismantling of democratic institutionality". Venezuela’s opposition, bolstered by an unofficial vote on July 16 that saw a third of the electorate reject Maduro’s plan, has called for a boycott of Sunday’s vote. The president’s attorney-general, Luisa Ortega, has also broken ranks with the government over the issue and become a vociferous opponent.

At the same time, Maduro’s administration is being squeezed by a long-running economic crisis. The oil export-dependent economy will shrink 12% this year, after a contraction of 18% last year, according to the latest forecast from the International Monetary Fund. Inflation is projected to top 720%. Venezuela’s currency reserves have dwindled to less than $10bn as the government keeps up debt repayments at the expense of imports to stave off a crippling default.

The opposition-led national assembly, meanwhile, has challenged the government by appointing 33 supreme court judges to rival ones loyal to Maduro. Three of the "shadow" judges have been arrested in the past few days by Venezuelan intelligence officials.

AFP

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