Venezuelans defy protest ban before assembly vote

Critics say Sunday's election of a constituent assembly is a plan by President Nicolas Maduro to create a dictatorship.

    Amid protest ban, government threats and heavy rain there were fewer protesters than during a two-day national strike this week [Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]
    Amid protest ban, government threats and heavy rain there were fewer protesters than during a two-day national strike this week [Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters]

    Venezuelans defied a protest ban and braved tear gas and rainstorms on Friday, blocking streets in protest against a legislative super-body to be elected on Sunday that critics say is a plan by President Nicolas Maduro to create a dictatorship.

    The imminent election of a constituent assembly has been broadly condemned by countries around the world as a weakening of democratic governance in the OPEC nation, which is also struggling under a crippling economic crisis.

    Opposition demonstrators said urgency was increasing as they set up barricades along main roads in the capital, Caracas, pelted by sheets of rain and tear-gas canisters fired by police.

    "If this election happens on Sunday, we lose everything. We lose Venezuela," said a 23-year-old-woman who identified herself as a student, face covered against the gas, declining to give her name to Reuters news agency.

    There were fewer protesters on Friday than during a two-day national strike this week. Confrontations with security forces, which have left more than 110 dead over the last four months, were relatively modest on Friday amid tropical downpours and a government ban on demonstrations and threats to jail protesters for up to 10 years.

    The opposition vowed to protest through the weekend, raising the spectre of further violence given that the government has banned protests from Friday to Tuesday.

    Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman, reporting from Caracas, said that - while thousands protested across the country - the government's ban on protests seems to have also intimidated many into staying off the streets.

    "Many have told us that they are frightened of what could happen to them," she said.

    "Opposition leaders are continuing to try to convince their supporters and Venezuelans to go out en masse - they say they have to take to the streets, they can't let up pressure now, with less than 48 hours before that vote. But so far turnout has been pretty disappointing for opposition leaders."

    'Legalised dictatorship'

    Maduro says the 545-member assembly will bring peace to the convulsed country [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

    Venezuelans have been protesting against Maduro to demand he respect the opposition-led congress and resolve chronic food and medicine shortages that have driven malnutrition and health problems.

    Amid a steep recession and triple-digit inflation, the bolivar currency weakened past 10,000 bolivars per US dollar on the black market on Friday, having fallen more than 99 percent since Maduro came to power in April 2013.

    Maduro says the 545-member assembly, which will have the power to dissolve state institutions and rewrite the constitution, will bring peace to the convulsed country.

    The opposition dismisses such promises.

    READ MORE: Venezuela has reached the 'zero hour' - What's next?

    "If the constituent assembly is activated there will be no way out. It will be a legalised dictatorship," an 18-year-old chef, who said high inflation has rendered his monthly paycheck virtually worthless, told Reuters, also declining to give his name.

    "This protest has been urgent from the beginning, but these two days before the election will be decisive."

    Al Jazeera's Lucia Newman said that there were rumours of talks between the two sides but no concrete indications that either is willing to make significant concessions.

    "Instead, what we have heard from the president of the electoral council who says everything is ready now for the elections on Sunday," she said.

    Growing international isolation

    The US this week sanctioned a group of ruling Socialist Party officials [Andres Martinez Casares [Reuters]

    Countries around the world have condemned the new assembly as a blow to democracy.

    US Vice President Mike Pence spoke on Friday with opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest in Venezuela. Pence reiterated the White House's pledge to impose "strong and swift economic actions" if Sunday's vote goes ahead, the vice president's office said in a statement.

    The United States this week sanctioned a group of ruling Socialist Party officials, and the US embassy ordered family members of staff to leave the country.

    That may have been more of an effort to pressure Maduro than to respond to the country's security situation, which has been challenging for years, said one former senior CIA official.

    "It's a powerful political signal, more than a means of protecting staff," the former official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

    Adding to Venezuela's growing international isolation, Colombian airline Avianca stopped operations in the country on Thursday due to "operational and security limitations".

    Meanwhile, Colombia said on Friday it will grant temporary legal status to more than 150,000 Venezuelans who entered the country legally and overstayed their visas, due to the deteriorating political and economic crisis in their home country.

    READ MORE: Venezuela - A country divided

    The measure is meant as a relief for those who entered with a passport at a border checkpoint, but are now in the country illegally and unable to work, exposing them to potentially abusive employers and conditions.

    The protection will be valid up to two years and let recipients work and receive social security benefits.

    Venezuelans must have entered on or before July 25 to qualify.

    It does not apply for the estimated 100,000 or more Venezuelans who entered illegally through the nations' porous, 2,200km frontier, although officials are reviewing their situation.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies


    YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

    John Pilger Q&A: 'US missiles are pointed at China'

    John Pilger Q&A: 'US missiles are pointed at China'

    Journalist John Pilger thinks the US and China might be on the path to war. "My film is a warning," he says.

    Why Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel

    Why Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel

    No country in the world recognises Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

    Sadly but frankly, Donald Trump is not going anywhere

    Sadly but frankly, Donald Trump is not going anywhere

    Trump isn't going to be impeached by this or perhaps any future Congress as currently constituted.