Venezuela Readies for Controversial Vote, More Protests
Venezuela’s opposition is calling for more protests Sunday, the day of a controversial vote called by President Nicolas Maduro on whether to rewrite the nation’s constitution.
Voters are supposed to cast ballots for a “constituent assembly” whose 545 members will be charged with rewriting the constitution. Critics assert that only Maduro supporters are candidates, and that they could revise the constitution to keep him in office indefinitely.
The political opposition is urging a boycott of the vote, which leaves only supporters of the president to cast ballots. The opposition is calling the vote fraudulent.
Protests early in the week gave way to a tense calm on Friday and Saturday after Maduro banned public demonstrations through next Tuesday. Maduro said anyone defying the ban risked up to 10 years in prison.
But opposition leaders are urging their supporters to defy the order on Sunday and make their voices heard in the streets.
Opposition Congressman Freddy Guevara told reporters on Saturday, “This is for elections, for the freeing of political prisoners, for change.” He warned that election day would not be the last of the protests. “From Monday,” he said, “this crisis will deepen.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence released a statement Friday after speaking by phone with a prominent Venezuelan dissident, Leopoldo Lopez, who recently was moved from prison to house arrest. Pence praised Lopez’s courage and called for the “unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly and respect for human rights in Venezuela.”
The United Nations has said it is deeply concerned about the situation in Venezuela.
Elisabeth Throssell, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters Friday in Geneva, “We hope that the poll scheduled for Sunday, if it goes ahead, will proceed peacefully and in full respect of human rights.”
On Thursday, Michael Fitzpatrick, State Department deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, told VOA that the United States holds out hope for a “peaceful and democratic” resolution to the Venezuelan crisis. But he said the U.S. had not ruled out the option of economic sanctions directly against Maduro.
“At the end of the day,” he said, ” … the government of Nicolas Maduro is the greatest danger to Venezuelan democracy.”
Venezuela has been beset by runaway inflation and shortages of food, medicine and staple products that have resulted in long lines at grocery stores and hunger at home.
One Caracas resident told the French news agency AFP that he’d bought enough food to last several days, in case things grew more difficult.
“The U.S. has pulled out its people, my boss has disappeared and we don’t know when he’ll be back. Best to be prepared,” said the 34-year-old resident, who said his name was Maximiliano.
As Caracas readies itself for more upheaval, at least one activist was to face authorities Saturday for defying the protest ban.
Musician Wuilly Arteaga, 23, has gained fame for playing his violin at anti-government protests. His lawyer told reporters that Arteaga was not breaking any laws when he was arrested Thursday while playing his violin on the streets of Caracas.
VOA’s Lina Correa contributed to this report.