May 23, 2017 / 9:51 PM / 2 months ago

Venezuela's Maduro vows to push ahead with new congress despite unrest

CARACAS, May 23 (Reuters) - Venezuela's unpopular President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday vowed to push ahead with a new congress to rewrite the constitution, despite dissent within his own ranks and major protests in the OPEC nation convulsed by nearly two months of unrest.

In the latest sign of internal fissures, a magistrate of the pro-government Supreme Court spoke out against the planned assembly, saying it was "not the solution to the crisis" and called on Maduro to "think carefully" to avoid more bloodshed.

At least 53 people have been killed as a result of unrest that began in early April. Riots and looting have underlined risks that protests could spin out of control given widespread hunger, anger at Maduro and easy access to weapons in one of the world's most violent countries.

Undeterred by opposition, Maduro on Tuesday presented the 540-member "constituent assembly" project as a cure to Venezuela's demonstrations, which he says are a U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow "21st century Socialism."

"Votes or bullets, what do the people want?" Maduro asked a crowd of red-shirted supporters waving Venezuelan flags at the Miraflores presidential palace.

"Let's go to elections now!" he said, before detailing how the new assembly will be partially elected by votes at a municipal level and partially by different groups, including workers, farmers, students, and indigenous people.

Opposition leaders say the project is a sham designed to avoid a presidential vote slated for next year and keep Maduro in power despite an oil-rich economy in a tailspin.

In the most telling sign of internal rumblings against Maduro, Venezuela's state prosecutor panned his plan for a grassroots congress and warned it risked deepening the crisis.

Venezuelans are scrutinizing the government and the armed forces for any further cracks as protesters take to the streets daily to demand early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate food and medicine shortages, and freedom for jailed activists.

"Persistent and increasingly violent unrest will eventually prompt key stakeholders to abandon Maduro and negotiate a rapid transition that sets a timetable for new elections; the precise timing is impossible to predict, however," the Eurasia Group political consultancy said in a note to clients on Tuesday.

"Desperate People"

Enraged by the economic crisis and perceived lack of democratic solutions, some Venezuelans have taken out their ire by publicly shaming government officials or knocking down statues of firebrand late leftist Hugo Chavez, who governed Venezuela from 1999 to 2013.

In the southeastern city of Puerto Ordaz, the president of a state-run company was "kidnapped," beaten up, and stripped naked by protesters, the government said.

In the lower middle-class Caracas neighborhood of El Paraiso, masked men on Monday night shot up an apartment building and parked cars in what one resident, who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals, said was retaliation for nearby barricades set up by opposition sympathizers.

Hundreds of people have been injured in the violence, around 2,700 arrested, with 1,000 still behind bars, and 335 tried in military tribunals, according to rights groups.

Lootings have also spiked, as many Venezuelans cannot afford three square meals a day or survive on basics like yucca or corn flour. In the usually calm peninsula of Paraguana, a food warehouse was looted on Sunday night. Some 17 people have been arrested. "The rumors started that they were going to sell something, so everyone came out and started to beat on the warehouse door, there were a lot of desperate people, kids and pregnant women," said a local resident, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

"The neighbors knocked the door down, they destroyed everything, and made off with bags of flour and pasta. Police and National Guard had to ask for reinforcements, they threw tear gas and we heard shots." (Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa, Cristian Veron, Eyanir Chinea, Andreina Aponte, Diego Ore, Maria Ramirez, and Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Hay)

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