Millions heed anti-Maduro shutdown in Venezuela

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 20, 2017 1:10 AM

By Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) - Many Venezuelan streets were barricaded and deserted on Thursday for a strike called by foes of President Nicolas Maduro to demand elections and the scrapping of plans for a new congress they fear will institute dictatorship.

From the Andes to the Amazon, millions appeared to be participating in the 24-hour shutdown, staying at home and closing businesses in a civil disobedience campaign the opposition hopes will end nearly two decades of socialist rule.

"We must all do our best to get rid of this tyrant," said Miguel Lopez, 17, holding a homemade shield emblazoned with "No To Dictatorship!" as he manned a roadblock on a Caracas thoroughfare that was devoid of traffic.

Many private transportation groups heeded the strike call, while students, neighbors and activists hauled rubbish and furniture into streets to erect makeshift barriers. In some places, however, such as the poor Catia and January 23rd neighborhoods of Caracas, streets and shops were still buzzing.

In a speech, Maduro said some opposition supporters attacked the headquarters of state TV and burned a kiosk of the government postal service. Workers at the TV station defended themselves with the help of soldiers, Maduro added. "I've ordered the capture of all the fascist terrorists."

In other clashes, security forces fired tear gas at protesters manning barricades. Youths shot fireworks at them.

Violence during four months of anti-government unrest has taken about 100 lives, injured thousands, left hundreds in jail and further damaged an economy in its fourth year of a debilitating decline.

Clashes have occurred daily since the opposition Democratic Unity coalition and a self-styled youth-led "Resistance" movement took to the streets in April. In the latest fatality, a man confronting protesters was burned to death this week in the northern coastal town of Lecheria, media and authorities said.

Leaders of Venezuela's 2.8 million public employees said state businesses and ministries remained open on Thursday.

"I'm on strike 'in my heart' because if we don't turn up, they will fire us," said a 51-year-old engineer at state steel plant Sidor in southern Bolivar state, waiting at dawn for transport provided by her company.

No disruptions were expected at oil company PDVSA which brings in 95 percent of Venezuela's export revenue.

"The Constituent Assembly is going ahead!" PDVSA president Eulogio Del Pino said on state TV, referring to Maduro's plan to create a super-legislature in a July 30 vote.

Government officials say the Constitutional Assembly would replace the current opposition-controlled legislature.

As the PDVSA president spoke he was surrounded by red-shirted oil workers in Monagas state chanting "they will not return" in reference to opposition aspirations to take power.

"HOW CAN I EAT?"

With Venezuela already brimming with shuttered stores and factories amid a blistering four-year recession, even a successful strike would have limited financial impact.

But some Venezuelans grumbled that Thursday's strike would cost them money and prevent them seeking food at a time of extreme economic crisis and hardship in the OPEC nation.

"How can I eat if I don't work?" said Jose Ramon, 50, chopping bananas and melons at his stall in a market in Catia.

Seven hours into Thursday's action, it was looking more successful for the opposition than a similar action last year, which had a lukewarm response after the government threatened to seize closed businesses.

On Sunday, the opposition said they drew 7.5 million people onto the streets for a symbolic referendum against the proposed Constitutional Assembly, which 98 percent of voters rejected. Local pollster Datanalisis says nearly seven in 10 Venezuelans oppose the plan.

"The streets are desolate, including close to the dictator," said opposition leader Freddy Guevara, tweeting pictures of empty avenues including in central Caracas near the Miraflores presidential palace.

"We fill and empty the streets when we choose in protest."

Maduro also faces widespread foreign pressure to abort the assembly, which could rewrite the constitution passed under his far more popular predecessor Hugo Chavez and supersede other institutions.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed into the dispute this week, threatening economic sanctions if the July 30 vote goes ahead. The opposition is boycotting the vote, whose rules seem designed to guarantee a government majority in the new congress.

Recalling a 36-hour coup against Chavez in 2002, Maduro has said his foes are seeking to oust him by force.

Chavez's home state Barinas is a traditional stronghold for the government but has seen an extraordinary turnaround in favor of the opposition in recent years. There was massive support on Thursday for the strike, local officials said.

"The strike is a total success: 98 percent of businesses are closed, 94 percent of public transport is not circulating," said Jose Luis Machin, opposition mayor of Barinas city.

As well as a presidential election, Venezuela's opposition is also demanding freedom for more than 400 jailed activists, autonomy for the legislature and foreign humanitarian aid.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Corina Pons in Caracas, Franciso Aguilar in Barinas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Editing by W Simon and Tom Brown)