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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Venezuela opposition to start two-day anti-Maduro shutdown

Millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown last week, leaving businesses closed, families behind doors, and streets barricaded or empty across swathes of Venezuela

Venezuela's angry opposition is pushing for a boycott of an upcoming vote that it dismisses as a ploy by president Nicolas Maduro to cling to power. AFP / Ronaldo Schemidt
Venezuela's angry opposition is pushing for a boycott of an upcoming vote that it dismisses as a ploy by president Nicolas Maduro to cling to power. AFP / Ronaldo Schemidt

President Nicolas Maduro's adversaries are to stage a two-day national strike from Wednesday in a final push to pressure him into abandoning a weekend election for a super-congress they say will institutionalise autocracy in Venezuela.

Millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown last week, leaving businesses closed, families behind doors, and streets barricaded or empty across swathes of Venezuela.

"From 6am tomorrow, we are going to paralyse this country," opposition lawmaker and street activist Juan Requesens said. "We have shown Nicolas Maduro and his group there is no love for them anywhere in Venezuela or the world."

The opposition, which has majority support after years in the shadow of the Socialist Party during the rule of Mr Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez, says Mr Maduro's planned Constituent Assembly is a farce designed purely to keep him in power.

The 54-year-old president, who calls himself "the son of Chavez" and flag bearer of his "21st century socialism" project, insists Sunday's vote will go ahead despite intense pressure at home and abroad including a threat of US economic sanctions.

Mr Maduro says the election for the 545-seat assembly, which will have power to rewrite the national constitution and override the current opposition-led legislature, is designed to put power in the hands of ordinary people.

"We are going to decide between war and peace, the future or the past, the sovereign power of the people or the imperialist, oligarchical coup," he told supporters late on Tuesday of the vote, which the opposition is boycotting.

A prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, in a video made while under house arrest, called on Wednesday on the military to withdraw its support for the government plan to rewrite the constitution.

"I invite you to not be accomplices to the annihilation of the republic, to a constitutional fraud, to repression," he said in a video made from his home and posted on Twitter.

The military, along with the courts, has been a key pillar of support for Mr Maduro.

Lopez called on Venezuelans to keep up their protests, insisting the government would not succeed "because of the determination, strength and conviction each of you have shown".

Accusing the government of seeking to eliminate the democratic state, he said Venezuelans had to stop it through "peaceful struggle and a deep commitment to conquer democracy, peace".

Deaths

State enterprises, including oil company PDVSA that accounts for 95 per cent of Venezuela's export income, were to stay open on Wednesday. Some public employees — who number 2.8 million in total — said they had strict orders not to skip work.

Five people died during last week's strike as National Guard troops seeking to dismantle blockades fired tear gas and rubber bullets at masked youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

That took to over 100 the number killed since protests against Mr Maduro began in early April.

But in some areas, such as rural zones and the working-class neighbourhoods of Caracas where the ruling Chavismo movement has traditionally had its power-base, life carried on relatively normally during the one-day shutdown.

Many Venezuelans, regardless of their political view, were fretting about the impact of further disruptions on their wallets — and stomachs. The OPEC nation is immersed in a brutal economic crisis, with shortages of basic foods and medicines.

"I'm out all day every day trying to find work or waiting in line for food," said casual builder Juan Manuel Fernandez, 58, who lives on a hilltop slum in Caracas with six dependents and relies on scarce, state-subsidised products for meals.

"So for me and my family, a strike means going hungry, so how can I be happy with that?"

Mr Fernandez added, saying Mr Maduro should abandon the "crazy" Constituent Assembly but the opposition should avoid causing extra hardship for the poor.

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