After hundreds of thousands took to the streets again to call for his removal, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he was calling for a citizens assembly and a new constitution. He said the move was needed to restore peace and stop his political opponents from trying to carry out a coup.
“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro told a May Day rally of supporters in downtown Caracas. Elsewhere across the city, security forces fired teargas at youths hurling stones and petrol bombs after opposition marches were blocked.
Maduro has triggered an article of the constitution that allows for the reformation of all public powers, as his predecessor Hugo Chávez did in 1999 soon after winning office.
“I convoke the original constituent power to achieve the peace needed by the republic, defeat the fascist coup, and let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue,” Maduro told red-shirted supporters.
Opposition leaders immediately objected, charging that Maduro was seeking to further erode Venezuela’s constitutional order.
They said the controversial move was another attempt to sideline the current opposition-led National Assembly and keep the unpopular Maduro in office amid a bruising recession and unrest that has led to 29 deaths in the last month.
“Faced with the dictator’s announcement of the constitutional fraud of the constituent assembly, people should go to the street and disobey such craziness,” the opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.
Earlier in the day, anti-Maduro protesters tried to march on government buildings in downtown Caracas, but police blocked their way – just as authorities have done more than a dozen times in four weeks of near-daily protests. Officers launched teargas and chased people away from main thoroughfares as the peaceful march turned into chaos.
The opposition lawmaker Jose Olivares was hit in the head with a teargas canister and was led away with blood streaming down his face. Some demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs and dragged trash into the streets to make barricades.
A separate government-sponsored march celebrating May Day went off without incident in the city.
Between the two demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people filled central roads and highways of the city.
At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured.
People of all ages and class backgrounds are participating in the protests. The unrest started in reaction to the attempt to nullify the opposition-controlled congress, but it has become a vehicle for people to vent their fury at widespread shortages of food and other basic goods, violence, and triple-digit inflation. Maduro accuses his opponents of conspiring to overthrow him and undermine the country’s struggling economy.
Protesters have begun showing up for demonstrations with medical masks and bandanas to protect themselves from the clouds of teargas that police often deploy without warning. Gas masks are hard to find, and the government is limiting people bringing them in from abroad.
Many protesters vowed Monday to keep pressuring the government.
“We’re ready to take the streets for a month or however long is needed for this government to understand that it must go,” said Sergio Hernandez, a computer technology worker.
Author: Staff and agencies in Caracas