Venezuelan opposition announces new anti-Maduro strike

Andrew Cawthorne, Reuters

Posted at Jul 23 2017 09:53 AM

Demonstrators clash with security forces during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 22, 2017. Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters

CARACAS - Venezuela's opposition announced a two-day national strike against President Nicolas Maduro after a day of violent clashes in Caracas on Saturday where the injured included a violinist who is a famous face of the protests.

The opposition Democratic Coalition - which organized a 24-hour shutdown this week that was heeded by millions and paralyzed large swathes of the South American nation - said the next strike would be on Wednesday and Thursday.

Mass marches were also planned for Monday and Friday in an effort to force President Nicolas Maduro into aborting a controversial July 30 election for a new congress.

The fast-escalating political showdown in the South American OPEC nation comes after more than 100 people have died and thousands more injured in anti-government unrest since demonstrations began in April.

"The Venezuelan people are not giving up, they are valiant, they will come out to defend democracy and the constitution," opposition lawmaker Simon Calzadilla said at a news conference flanked by other coalition officials.

Foes accuse Maduro of turning Venezuela into a dictatorship and wrecking what should be a prosperous economy. They want free elections and an end to two decades of socialist rule.

Maduro, 54, calls himself a flag bearer for the international left, up against right-wing "terrorists" seeking a coup with the connivance of the U.S. and the international media.

BLOODIED MUSICIAN

On Saturday, several thousand protesters sought to march on the pro-Maduro Supreme Court in support of alternative magistrates appointed by the opposition on Friday.

But security forces blocked them with armored cars and riot shields. Clashes ensued for several hours as hundreds of masked youths hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at National Guard troops firing tear gas from motorcycles.

The injured included musician Wuilly Arteaga. The 23-year-old has become famous in Venezuela for playing the national anthem and other tunes on his violin in front of security lines as battles rage around him.

Paramedics attended Arteaga in the street as blood poured down his face. He later tweeted a video from hospital with a bandaged face and clutching his violin.

"Neither rubber bullets nor pellets will stop our fight for Venezuela's independence," said Arteaga. "Tomorrow I will be back in the streets."

The opposition is stepping up street tactics in what it dubs "hour zero" for Venezuela to try and block the new Constitutional Assembly Maduro wants to set up with an election next weekend.

The opposition is boycotting that vote, calling it a sham and demanding conventional elections instead.

The Constituent Assembly, whose election rules appear designed to guarantee a majority for the government even though it has minority popular support, could re-write the constitution and disband the existing opposition-led legislature.

'ENOUGH OF TERRORISM'

At rival pro-government rallies on Saturday, candidates for the Constituent Assembly said it was the only way to bring peace to Venezuela. "We are not going to let them destroy our fatherland," said Delcy Rodriguez, who left her post as foreign minister to stand for the new congress.

"All of us united are going to tell the right wing 'We've had enough of terrorism'," Maduro's wife Cilia Flores, also running for an assembly post, told the same rally in Caracas.

Also on Saturday, the government's intelligence service arrested Angel Zerpa, one of 13 sworn in as Supreme Court magistrates by the opposition in defiance of the government, opposition leaders said.

Authorities have threatened to arrest all the opposition-named judges and try them in military courts.

International pressure has been growing on Maduro to abandon next weekend's vote, including a threat from U.S. President Donald Trump to apply economic sanctions.

But the government is showing no sign of backing down, announcing that it will put 232,000 soldiers on the streets to ensure the Constituent Assembly goes ahead.

On Saturday, National Guard forces could be seen firing tear gas canisters horizontally at demonstrators in contravention of international norms, witnesses said.

"The repression has been brutal and the world has to understand what we are living through in the streets of Venezuela," opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said.

"It's criminal."

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte, Deisy Buitrago and Corina Pons; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Chris Reese)