Venezuela crisis enters new phase

An anti-government demonstrator pushes a old refrigerator to make a barricade to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, July 29, 2017. Despite four months of deadly protests and the threat of U.S. sanctions, Venezuela on Saturday found itself 24 hours away from a consolidation of government power that appeared certain to drag the OPEC nation deeper into a crisis that has entire neighborhoods battling police and paramilitaries while the poor root for scraps in piles of trash.(AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

By MICHAEL

WEISSENSTEIN

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Despite four months of deadly protests and the threat of U.S. sanctions, Venezuela on Saturday found itself 24 hours away from a consolidation of government power that appeared certain to drag the OPEC nation deeper into a crisis that has entire neighborhoods battling police and paramilitaries while the poor root for scraps in piles of trash.

In the opposition strongholds of relatively wealthy eastern Caracas, skinny teenagers manned barricades of tree branches, garbage and barbed wire torn from nearby buildings. Clashes with police began late Friday afternoon and lasted into the night. The months of violence have left at least 113 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded.

The rest of the capital was calm. Across the city, residents said they wanted President Nicolas Maduro out of power but didn’t want to risk their lives or livelihoods taking on his socialist government and its backers.

“I have a young daughter, I can’t risk anything happening to me,” said Maria Llanes, a 55-year-old flower-store worker who lives in a south Caracas neighborhood dominated by armed pro-government motorcycle gangs. “What do I do, protest in this neighborhood, so that they kill me? This area’s run by a mafia loyal to the money the government pays them.”

Maduro called for a massive turnout today for a vote to elect members of an assembly tasked with rewriting the 18-year-old constitution created under President Hugo Chavez. The opposition is boycotting because, it says, the vote called by Maduro was structured to ensure that his ruling socialist party dominates.

The opposition says the government is so afraid of low turnout that it’s threatening to fire state workers who don’t vote, and take away social benefits like subsidized food from recipients who stay away from the polls.

By Wednesday, the resulting National Constituent Assembly will become one of the most powerful organs in the country, able to root out the last vestiges of democratic checks and balances in favor of what many fear will be a single-party authoritarian system.

First Lady Cilia Flores, a candidate for the assembly, said it would create a commission to ensure those responsible for the political upheaval “pay and learn their lesson.”

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