CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro is ordering retaliation against managers in government agencies who signed a petition to recall him from office.
Socialist party leader Jorge Rodriguez said Monday that Maduro had set a 48-hour deadline for ministers to fire high-ranking public workers who added their names to a petition seeking a new presidential election.
The sackings would affect the ministries of food, finance, work and basic business, as well as workers in the office of the president.
Hundreds of public workers have already said they were fired this summer after signing the petition.
Critics of Venezuela's 17-year-old socialist revolution have made the recall effort their chief priority this year, but it is unlikely to succeed in wresting the presidency back from the socialist party as elections officials drag their feet at every turn.
The timing is crucial because a successful recall vote this year would trigger a presidential election that, according to polls, the opposition would likely win. But if the referendum is delayed until next year, a recall vote would result only in the vice president replacing Maduro until his term ends in early 2019.
Opposition leaders launched the recall process by gathering signatures from 1 percent of the voters earlier this year. They are now waiting for elections officials to allow them to begin the second phase. That requires them to collect petition signatures from the 20 percent of the country's voters, or 4 million people, over the course of three days in order to trigger a national recall referendum.
Maduro has consistently said the recall will not happen this year. But he has not spoken publicly about blacklisting people who support the effort.
The order to fire workers recalls widespread official retaliation against those who signed a petition to recall former president Hugo Chavez in 2004.
The government is Venezuela's largest employer, with nearly 3 million people working in a public post.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who would have a good shot at winning a presidential election if it were scheduled this year, has called a major protest for Sept. 1.
Also on Monday, the head of the Organization of American States accused Venezuela of failing to respect basic political rights. In an open letter addressed to imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Secretary-General Luis Almagro said "there is no democracy nor a state of law" in the South American country.
"The people of Venezuela are victims of bullying, which has become the defining characteristic of this government's approach," he wrote.
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier .