CARACAS – Venezuelan opposition leaders called Monday for a 24-hour nationwide strike to increase pressure on the socialist government after more than 7 million people rejected a plan to rewrite the constitution and consolidate the ruling party’s power over the country, which has been stricken by shortages and inflation and riven by more than 100 days of clashes between protesters and police.
U.S. President Donald Trump threatened “strong and swift economic actions” against President Nicolas Maduro’s government if it proceeds with plans for a July 30 election to choose an assembly to retool the constitution, joining international support for the opposition referendum.
“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a strongly statement, adding that in that country “courageous actions continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator.”
The United States once again calls for free and fair elections and stands with the people of Venezuela: https://t.co/ZL4zyVh8DU
— President Trump (@POTUS) 17 de julio de 2017
Venezuela’s opposition said the country’s National Assembly, which it controls, would name new members to the government-dominated Supreme Court, setting up a showdown with Maduro, whose party controls nearly all other state institutions. Opposition parties also plan to sign a declaration calling for the formation of an alternative “government of national unity,” a step toward total rejection of government authority.
“Overall the package is pretty radical, especially the idea of a parallel government,” said David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela. “I think it could lead to real chaos.”
He noted, however, that the opposition moves were to be implemented in phases over the next week, giving both sides the opportunity to negotiate possible concessions.
After some procedural moves in the National Assembly on Tuesday, the opposition said it would launch a plan it called “zero hour” on Wednesday that includes an agreement to form an alternate government and create 2,000 local committees that would function as street-level support for the opposition.
That will be followed Thursday by a nationwide strike, which could bring much of Venezuela’s already sputtering economy to a standstill. Venezuela’s largest chamber of commerce told a news agency that its members would not punish employees for participating in the strike.
— David Smilde (@dsmilde) 17 de julio de 2017
On Friday, the opposition will name 13 judges to the supreme court to replace those named by the outgoing, ruling party-dominated congress in 2015 in a process that legal experts say violated nomination procedures. The nominations would not give the opposition a supreme court majority but are almost certain to be rejected by the current court and the executive branch, making them a largely symbolic tactic to increase pressure on Maduro.
“We call on the whole country to launch a 24-hour national strike this Thursday, a massive, non-violent protest, as a way to pressure the government and to prepare for the final steps, which will be next week, to confront this fraud … and to restore constitutional order,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said. He didn’t say what the final steps would be.
More than three months of street protests, which have left at least 93 people dead and 1,500 wounded. More than 500 protesters and government opponents have been jailed.
The opposition said 7.6 million Venezuelans participated in Sunday’s symbolic referendum rejecting Maduro’s plans to elect an assembly to remake the country’s political system. Maduro’s allies have called on the assembly to impose executive branch authority over the few remaining institutions outside the control of Venezuela’s socialist ruling party. The government labeled the vote as an internal party poll with no relevance for the country.
Maduro made no mention of the opposition’s strike plans in a lengthy television appearance Monday afternoon but called on his foes to recognize that Sunday’s vote had been almost entirely peaceful. Sunday’s vote was marred by violence when a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site at a church in western Caracas.
In smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters also went to polling stations on Sunday in a rehearsal for the July 30 vote.
“I just want to say what I’ve already said, that the right-wing parties’ internal poll took place in peace,” Maduro said. “I guaranteed it and it took place peacefully … now they should respect the feelings of the country, which is that there’s a right to peace.”
Canada and Mexico were among the countries that issued statements Sunday evening lauding the opposition vote.
And Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos planned to discuss the Venezuelan crisis during a visit with President Raul Castro of Cuba, Venezuela’s closest regional ally, Colombia’s foreign minister said from Havana.
Colombia has dealt with rising tensions and a growing number of people crossing the border from Venezuela as the crisis in the oil-rich country deepened.
Opponents of Venezuela’s government blame it for turning one of the region’s most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.