CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela’s opposition called for weekend protests as Thursday’s deadline neared for candidates for an assembly to re-write the constitution — a gathering opponents slam as a naked power grab by the leftist government.
Sixty people have died and around 1,000 people have been wounded since April 1, when opponents of President Nicolas Maduro intensified their attempts to remove him from power, according to government figures.
The massive protests have been fueled by soaring inflation and shortages of food and medicine, a result of Venezuela’s economic collapse driven by the fall in prices for its crucial oil exports since 2014.
In an attempt to stabilize its foreign exchange market, the government on Wednesday devalued its currency, the Bolivar, by 64 percent.
Under the overhauled official exchange system, the government let investors bid for US dollars at a new higher rate in what Maduro said was an effort to undermine the black market.
The rate of 2,010 Bolivars per dollar represents a sharp devaluation compared to 721 bolivars under the previous system, but is still far below the black market rate, currently around 6,000 bolivars per dollar.
The central bank sold $24 million overall, mostly to companies importing foreign goods.
“The amount assigned was laughable. It shows the lack of currency,” economist Jesus Casique told AFP.
– Protests and more protests –
On Wednesday some 5,000 protesters clashed with police when they tried to march to the foreign ministry headquarters in a demo aimed at coinciding with an Organization of American States meeting on Venezuela.
Violent clashes later broke out in eastern Caracas, which authorities said resulted in scores of wounded.
The OAS meeting at the group’s headquarters in Washington, however, was suspended because members could not agree on how to handle the Venezuelan crisis — a development that Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez celebrated as a victory.
“The only consensus is that there is no consensus,” Rodriguez told VTV state television from Washington.
“The voice of moral authority imposed itself … they have been defeated,” she said.
The domestic opposition to Maduro, however, feels far from being defeated, and has called for more demos on Saturday, this time to protest widespread hunger.
“The game seems to be deadlocked. The government is becoming more and more repressive and the opposition is continuing its protests in the street,” said political analyst Luis Salamanca.
“There could be a total, serious confrontation, permanent chaos. Anything could happen here — even a popular uprising.”
Opposition congressional speaker Julio Borges visited European lawmakers on Wednesday in Brussels, where he warned Maduro’s plan to re-write the constitution will trigger more bloodshed.
At a news conference, Borges asked for “help” from EU institutions so that “those who have violated human rights are also hit with sanctions.”
– Target: reporters –
Venezuelan National Guard forces on Wednesday assaulted several reporters, including AFP photographer Luis Robayo, as they covered a protest.
Robayo said the troops beat him as they sought to prevent him taking pictures of clashes between demonstrators and the National Guard on Caracas’ Francisco Fajardo highway.
“The National Guard started to go by on motorbikes. They approached and one of them hit me several times in the head, then they pushed me and I fell. They lifted me up by the (bulletproof) vest, and my camera fell,” he recalled.
One of them tried to take off Robayo’s gas mask and arrest him only to be told to stop by a superior, the photographer said.
Guards took away the photographer’s vehicle and belongings, his driver said.
At least two photographers with other media faced beatings and brief arrests, professional associations and colleagues said.
– Constitutional reform –
Authorities on Wednesday began a 48-hour process of signing up candidates for a planned constitutional reform body, a move that has inflamed anti-government protests.
Maduro opponents say he aims to keep himself in power by stacking the planned “constitutional assembly” with allies.
The electoral authorities have called on candidates to sign up online to seek election to the 545-member assembly, which will be tasked with writing a new constitution.
The center right-led opposition coalition has vowed not to take part.
“I hope no one will commit treason by taking part in such an absolutely fraudulent process,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.