CARACAS, Venezuela — Caracas residents blocked streets with trash bags, broken concrete and twisted metal Tuesday to protest the socialist president’s bid to rewrite the constitution amid a deepening political crisis.
Increasingly embattled President Nicolás Maduro signed a decree Monday to begin the process of rewriting the country’s charter. Opposition leaders immediately cried foul, calling the planned constitutional assembly a ploy to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018.
Polling has suggested the socialists would lose both those elections badly at a time of widespread anger over triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and other goods.
Speaking hours after yet another big anti-government march ended in rock throwing by some protesters and tear gas from police, Maduro said a new constitution is needed to restore peace and stop the opposition from trying to carry out a coup.
“This will be a citizens’ assembly made up of workers,” the president said. “The day has come brothers. Don’t fail me now. Don’t fail (Hugo) Chávez and don’t fail your motherland.”
“I am no Mussolini,” he added.
The president was vague in a televised speech Monday evening about how members of the constitutional assembly would be chosen. He hinted some would selected by voters, but many observers expect the government to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates.
If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the assembly. That could distract them from organizing the near-daily street protests that have kept up for four weeks, political analyst Luis Vicente León said.
“It’s a way of calling elections that uses up energy but does not carry risk, because it’s not a universal, direct and secret vote,” León said. “And it has the effect of pushing out the possibility of elections this year and probably next year as well.”
Venezuela’s constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Hugo Chávez, who began the socialist transformation of the oil-exporting nation. Chavez called his new constitution the best in the world, and predicted it would last centuries. He carried around a blue pocket-sized version of the document, and would often whip it out and say, “This is our Bible. After the Bible, this.” At the height of his popularity, people would mob him to ask that he sign their copies.
The opposition immediately seized on Maduro’s proposal for a new charter as evidence that his mentor’s revolution lies in shambles.
The president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, called a constitutional assembly a “giant fraud” by Maduro and his allies designed to keep them in power. Borges said it would deny Venezuelans the right to express their views at the ballot box, and he urged the military to prevent the “coup” by Maduro.
“What the Venezuelan people want isn’t to change the constitution but to change Maduro through voting,” he said at a news conference in eastern Caracas, where anti-government protesters once again clashed with police Monday.
Anti-government protests have been roiling Venezuela for a month, and Borges said more pressure is needed to restore democracy. He called for a major demonstration Wednesday.
On Monday, anti-Maduro protesters tried to march on government buildings in downtown Caracas, but police blocked their path, as authorities have done more than a dozen times the past four weeks. Officers launched tear gas and chased people away from main thoroughfares as the peaceful march dissolved into chaos. Some demonstrators then 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.
At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured. Opposition lawmaker José Olivares was hit in the head with a tear gas canister Monday and was led away with blood streaming down his face.
The unrest started in reaction to an attempt to nullify the opposition controlled-congress, but has become a vehicle for people to vent their fury at Venezuela’s economic problems and violent crime. Maduro blames the economy’s troubles on sabotage by his opponents and accuses them of conspiring to overthrow him.
Sergio Hernández, a computer technology worker who participated in Monday’s protest, said he would not return to his normal life until Maduro’s administration had been driven out.
“We’re ready to take the streets for a month or however long is needed for this government to understand that it must go,” he said.