Five dead in Venezuelan protests after opposition calls strike

Government plans to rewrite constitution cause serious unrest and talk of sanctions


Five people were reported dead in protests in Venezuela to mark a general strike called by the opposition to protest government plans to rewrite the South American country’s constitution.

With political and social chaos mounting, this week’s deaths bring to 106 the number of people killed in the latest round of anti-government protests, which started four months ago.

Embattled president Nicolás Maduro has called Sunday’s election to choose members for a body that will be tasked with rewriting the constitution his own populist Chavista movement drafted in 1999 under the auspices of his deceased predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.

The president wants the new body to replace the current national assembly, which the opposition took control of in a crushing midterm election victory in 2015. Since then the executive and legislature have been engaged in a bitter stand-off with the assembly’s effort to organise a recall referendum on Mr Maduro’s mandate, frustrated by the Chavista supreme court.

Boycott of poll

The opposition is calling for a boycott of Sunday’s vote. On July 16th it claimed that seven million people voted in a symbolic referendum it called to reject the president’s plans for the constitutional assembly.

The political confrontation worsened this week when the national assembly appointed 33 new judges to replace the current supreme court, several of whom were quickly detained by the intelligence services.

International pressure on the regime in Caracas also ratcheted up this week. The US government imposed sanctions on 13 top Chavista officials on Wednesday, though crucially did not suspend imports of Venezuelan crude oil, one of the few foreign currency earners the government has left.

Brazil’s government has also expressed growing concern that the escalating crisis could lead to a general breakdown in civil order in Venezuela and lead to an increase in the number of refugees from there already seeking asylum at its borders. The government in Brasília has floated the idea of hosting peace talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition under the auspices of regional trade bloc Mercosur, of which it holds the rotating presidency.

Measures against Venezuela

In an effort to get Mr Maduro to agree to negotiations, the bloc is threatening measures against Venezuela if it decides its government – whose membership of the organisation was suspended last year – is in violation of the Ushuaia Protocol, which commits all Mercosur members to democratic norms.

But several left-wing governments in the region expressed support for Mr Maduro, who claims his administration is under siege from a right-wing conspiracy orchestrated by Washington. Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba have all lent their backing to Caracas in the build-up to Sunday’s vote.

The current crisis was caused by the collapse in the price of oil, which exposed the Chavista regime’s mismanagement of the economy.

The government, forced to use receipts from oil sales to service huge foreign debts it ran up during the last oil boom, cannot now afford sufficient food and medicine imports.

A recent study by a group of Venezuelan universities showed that 93 per cent of respondents said they did not have enough income to buy the food they needed. Three in four Venezuelans say they have lost weight in the last year as food becomes increasingly scarce, with the average weight loss reported at nine kilograms.