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Barricades, protests spread over Venezuela "sham" elections
May 24, 2017 / 1:47 PM / 2 months ago

Barricades, protests spread over Venezuela "sham" elections

CARACAS, May 24 (Reuters) - Angry Venezuelans barricaded streets in parts of Caracas and the opposition geared up for another protest on Wednesday as the announcement of two election dates failed to appease anger against President Nicolas Maduro and an economy in tailspin.

After nearly two months of protests demanding an early presidential vote, the pro-government electoral council on Tuesday said voting for a controversial "constituent assembly" would be held in July and delayed state elections in December.

Maduro foes countered that was a sham designed to confuse Venezuelans, prompt infighting among the opposition over strategy, and allow the unpopular leftist government to dodge free and fair elections they would likely lose.

Opposition lawmakers say the assembly, whose 540 members will be elected on a municipal level and by community groups like workers, will be filled with government stooges who will merely obey Maduro's orders to rewrite the constitution.

"Once installed, this constituent assembly will eliminate governorships, mayors, and the National Assembly," said opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa.

"There's been a break in Venezuela's constitutional order, and the streets are our way to rescue it," he added.

The South American OPEC member has been racked by strife since early April, with at least 55 people killed as protests and anger boiled over due to an economic meltdown.

Venezuela is suffering triple-digit inflation, a fourth year of recession, long lines at shops and widespread shortages of basic foods and medicines.

Maduro says he is facing an "armed insurrection" and the constituent assembly, a super body that will supersede all other public powers, is the way to restore peace to Venezuela.

Opposition supporters planned to march to the electoral council on Wednesday, although the demonstration would likely be blocked by National Guard soldiers. Over and over in the last weeks, troops and police have faced off with masked youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

The opposition-led National Assembly wants a referendum asking Venezuelans if they approve of Maduro's constituent assembly plan.

Riots and Looting

Looting, barricades and riots are now commonplace around Venezuela, as the protests spin out of control, given hunger, hopelessness, easy access to weapons and gangs taking advantage of the chaos.

In many places, schools are canceled, public transport is halted, and streets are barricaded. Some neighborhoods look like war zones after nighttime pillaging of bakeries and warehouses.

At some intersections, hooded young men ask passersby for money to "collaborate with the resistance." Traffic was blocked in various parts of the capital early on Wednesday.

The trouble has been particularly bad this week in Barinas, the home state of Maduro's mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez that the socialists regard as the "cradle of the revolution."

Seven people died in protests there in the last few days, according to the state prosecutor.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected in 2013, paints the opposition as coup-mongers seeking to stoke violence and overthrow his "21st century Socialism."

Over 2,700 people have been arrested since early April, with more than 1,100 still behind bars and some 330 being tried in military tribunals, according to rights group Penal Forum.

Maduro is facing some rare public dissent from within his own ranks. The prosecutor has panned his assembly plan and a Supreme Court magistrate also criticized it. Opposition leaders say various military dissenters have been rounded up. (Additional reporting by Corina Pons; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by W Simon)

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