Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators massed outside Venezuela’s congress on Thursday as lawmakers inside debated how to remove the socialist president from office amid an escalating political confrontation.
Some opposition lawmakers said they were hit with sticks and pipes as they walked through the gauntlet of shouting red-shirted government supporters on their way into the heavily militarized National Assembly building.
The opposition-led legislature voted Tuesday to hold a “political trial” of President Nicolás Maduro, though they have no power to remove him from office. Opponents charge that Maduro effectively staged a coup by ignoring the constitution. They say Venezuela became a dictatorship when electoral authorities blocked a recall campaign against Maduro last week.
Polls show that a majority of Venezuelans blame Maduro for the country’s triple-digit inflation, free-falling economy and shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods. Tens of thousands of people filled the streets in Caracas and other major cities Wednesday to demand Maduro resign. Dozens were wounded and more than 100 were arrested during the nationwide day of protest.
Maduro’s foes ended the day of protest with call for a general strike on Friday.
Powerful socialist leader Diosdado Cabello responded on Wednesday night by warning that businesses that participate will be expropriated.
“I’ve spoken with the president. Any business that closes is a business taken over by workers and the military,” he said.
The opposition also called for a march on the presidential palace in the heart of the city on Nov. 3 if the government doesn’t reverse its decision to block the recall effort.
Critics of the socialist administration have not been allowed to protest in front of the presidential palace in downtown Caracas since a massive march there precipitated a short-lived coup against former President
Hugo Chávez in 2002.
Opposition leaders had asked supporters to rally outside the congress building downtown on Thursday, but hundreds of pro-government protesters showed up instead.
As lawmakers debated how best to get rid of Maduro, the embattled president announced a hike in the minimum wage, the fourth this year. Venezuela is grappling with the world’s highest inflation, and workers complain prices are rising far more quickly than salaries.
The congressional debate is unlikely to have much impact. The National Assembly can’t impeach the president. That power lies with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro and which has ruled that the president can ignore laws passed by the congress.
Amid the dueling protests and threats, the government and opposition have agreed on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis.
Talks sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments are set to begin Sunday on the resort island of Margarita, but opposition leaders have expressed skepticism about a breakthrough. The ruling party is in firm control of institutions like the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.
On Thursday, opposition lawmakers said even the soldiers guarding the Capitol building were partisan, and seeking to undermine the institution.
“There are thugs outside with sticks and pipes, they’re attacking us, and the military is doing nothing to protect us,” said lawmaker Jose Brito, who arrived at the congressional debate sweaty and furious.