CARACAS, Venezuela — Thousands of protesters were met with plumes of tear gas in Venezuela’s capital Wednesday, just miles from where President Nicolas Maduro delivered a decree kicking off a process to rewrite the troubled nation’s constitution.
Surrounded by top-ranking socialist officials, a combative, riled-up Maduro told supporters dressed in red outside the National Electoral Council that the constitutional assembly was needed to instil peace against a violent opposition.
“I see congress shaking in its boots before a constitutional convention,” he said, referring to the opposition-controlled legislature.
A short distance away, national guardsmen launched tear gas at demonstrators who tried marching toward the National Assembly.
“The repression has started,” said Miguel Pizarro, an opposition congressman, as clouds of white tear gas swirled near him. “That’s how those who want to maintain a dictatorship with violence act.”
The latest push by Maduro to settle an increasingly deadly and contentious political crisis comes as the Trump administration warns it might impose more sanctions on Venezuelan officials and members of the U.S. Congress are pushing the administration to act more forcefully to rein in Maduro.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators said it will introduce legislation providing humanitarian assistance to Venezuela while toughening sanctions against corrupt officials, according to Senate aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The legislation, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, also instructs the intelligence community to prepare a partly unclassified report on Venezuelan government officials’ involvement in corruption and drug trafficking.
Four people were killed in the mounting turmoil overnight. Two died when the bus they were travelling in flipped when it tried to avoid a barricade set up by protesters, according to opposition activists who live near the accident site in Carabobo state. A third person was killed during looting at a shop in the industrial city of Valencia and a motorcyclist died after being struck by a car trying to swerve away from a protest, the chief prosecutor’s office said.
The deaths bring to at least 34 the number of people who have died in the unrest over the past month. Hundreds more have been injured.
Driving the latest outrage is the decree by Maduro to begin the process of rewriting Venezuela’s constitution, which was pushed through in 1999 by his predecessor and mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.
Opposition leaders called the planned constitutional assembly a ploy to keep Maduro and his allies in power by putting off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018. Opinion polls have suggested the socialists would lose both elections badly at a time of widespread anger over triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and other goods.
Dressed in a traditional beige high-neck Venezuelan garment, Maduro told supporters at the electoral council that the constitutional assembly would be selected by voters in the coming weeks. He urged them to enlist neighbours and co-workers to unite in securing a majority in the special body in order for them to “win the constitutional assembly.”
“You wanted your elections,” Maduro said mockingly of the opposition. “Here are your elections.”
At the end of the rally, Maduro wiped his face with a white towel and threw it into the crowd.
Relatively few details have been released on how delegates to the assembly will be chosen, leading many to predict the process will favour socialists. The president has said he hoped the opposition would join in creating a new constitution.
The proposed U.S. legislation, written before Maduro’s latest move, is co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who authored earlier sanctions legislation on Venezuela. It also has the support of Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, as well as Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The U.S. already has sanctioned several Venezuelan officials, including Vice-President Tareck El Aissami in February for allegedly being a major cocaine trafficker.
The new legislation seeks to put into law executive action by the Obama administration that targeted officials involved in corruption and found to “undermine democratic governance” with sanctions freezing any U.S. assets and banning them from entry into the U.S.
It also would mandate $10 million a year in humanitarian assistance to Venezuela. Maduro has rejected such aid offers as attempts by the U.S. to pave the way for foreign intervention.
The legislation additionally calls on the Trump administration to “take all necessary steps” to prevent the Rosneft company from gaining control of critical U.S. energy infrastructure. The Russian government-controlled firm is a major creditor to Venezuelan state-run oil giant PDVSA and recently took a nearly 50 per cent stake in its U.S. subsidiary Citgo as collateral for a new loan.
Venezuela’s constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in Chavez’s 14-year presidency as he launched a socialist revolution in this oil-exporting nation. Chavez called his new constitution the best in the world, predicting it would last centuries. He carried around a blue pocket-size version of the charter, and would often whip it out and say: “This is our Bible. After the Bible, this.”
The Venezuelan government on Tuesday suspended the right to carry guns for 180 days. The unrest erupted after the Maduro administration tried to nullify the powers of the opposition-controlled congress and a growing number of people have since joined in to show their anger with Venezuela’s economic ruin and violent crime.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .
Hannah Dreier And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press