Venezuela's opposition starts two-day anti-Maduro shutdown

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 26, 2017 1:07 AM

By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's adversaries launched a two-day national strike on Wednesday in a final push to pressure him into abandoning a weekend election for a super-congress they say will institutionalize autocracy in Venezuela.

Millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown last week, leaving businesses closed, families behind doors, and streets barricaded or empty across swathes of Venezuela.

From dawn on Wednesday, neighbors gathered in some parts of Caracas to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while corner cafes remained shut. There was still, however, a trickle of people on their way to work.

"We need to paralyze the whole country," said Flor Lanz, 68, standing with a group of women blocking the entrance to a freeway in east Caracas with rope and iron sheets.

"I'm staying here for 48 hours. It's the only way to show we are not with Maduro. They are few, but they have the weapons and the money," added decorator Cletsi Xavier, 45, beside her.

The opposition, which has majority support after years in the shadow of the Socialist Party during the rule of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez, says Maduro's planned Constituent Assembly is a farce designed purely to keep him in power.

The 54-year-old president, who calls himself "the son of Chavez" and flag bearer of his "21st century socialism" project, insists Sunday's vote will go ahead despite intense pressure at home and abroad including a threat of U.S. economic sanctions.

Maduro says the election for the 545-seat assembly, which will have power to rewrite the national constitution and override the current opposition-led legislature, is designed to put power in the hands or ordinary people.

"We are going to decide between war and peace, the future or the past, the sovereign power of the people or the imperialist, oligarchical coup," he told supporters late on Tuesday of the vote, which the opposition is boycotting.


State enterprises, including oil company PDVSA that accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela's export income, were staying open on Wednesday. Public employees - who number 2.8 million in total - had strict orders not to skip work and to vote on Sunday.

Many Venezuelans, regardless of their political view, were fretting about the impact of further disruptions on their wallets - and stomachs. The OPEC nation is immersed in a brutal economic crisis, with shortages of basic foods and medicines.

"For me it's a normal day. If I don't work, I don't eat. Who can risk their work in moments like this?" said Elio Jimenez, 40, who works at an oil refinery in the Paraguana peninsula.

Five people died during last week's strike as National Guard troops seeking to dismantle blockades fired tear gas and rubber bullets at masked youths hurling stones and Molotov cocktails.

That took to over 100 the number killed since protests against Maduro began in early April.

There has been less enthusiasm for the strike calls in rural zones and working-class neighborhoods of Caracas where the ruling "Chavismo" movement has traditionally had its power base.

"I'm out all day every day trying to find work or waiting in line for food," said casual builder Juan Manuel Fernandez, 58, who lives on a hilltop slum in Caracas with six dependents and relies on scarce, state-subsidized products for meals.

"So for me and my family, a strike means going hungry, so how can I be happy with that?" Fernandez added, saying Maduro should abandon the "crazy" Constituent Assembly but the opposition should avoid causing extra hardship for the poor.

Venezuela's best-known detained political leader, Leopoldo Lopez, issued a video overnight urging people to keep up protests. Lopez taped his 15-minute message from home in Caracas after recently being granted house arrest.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Fabian Cambero; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and W Simon)