CARACAS Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro announced on Monday a vote for a new popular assembly with capacity to re-write the constitution, but foes said it was an attempt to cling to power amid major protests.
“I don’t want a civil war,” Maduro told a May Day rally of supporters in downtown Caracas while elsewhere across the city security forces fired tear gas at youths hurling stones and petrol bombs after opposition marches were blocked.
Maduro has triggered an article of the constitution that allows for the reformation of all public powers, as his predecessor Hugo Chavez did in 1999 soon after winning office in the South American OPEC nation.
“Faced with the dictator’s announcement of the constitutional fraud of the constituent assembly, people should go to the street and disobey such craziness,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.
While Maduro alleges a U.S.-backed coup plot, foes say he has wrecked the economy and become a tyrant.
Earlier on Monday National Guard troops shot teargas in a district of west Caracas towards hundreds of opposition protesters standing around waiting to march.
“For no reason, they are starting to repress us,” lawmaker Jose Olivares said via a messaging app, as demonstrators took cover behind trees and walls and opposition lawmakers streamed video of the protest from their phones.
Olivares was injured in the head by a gas canister, the opposition said.
Elsewhere, the National Guard blocked marchers pouring towards a major highway in front of the Avila mountain on Caracas’ northern edge.
Opposition supporters cheered as youths ran to the front, carrying makeshift shields made from trash bin lids, wood and even a satellite dish.
Others blocked roads in Caracas’ wealthier Chacao area with branches and fences.
In central Caracas, where the socialists have traditionally held their rallies, government supporters cheered a huge inflatable doll of Chavez and railed against opposition “Terrorists.”
“The workers are in the street to defend our president against the violent coup-mongers,” said Aaron Pulido, 29, a union worker with migration department Saime, in downtown Caracas among a sea of red banners.
The government laid on hundreds of buses for its backers but closed subway stations in the capital and set up roadblocks, impeding opposition mobilization.
“Who can stand this? So much hunger, misery, crime … The prices are going up far more than the salary rises,” said social security worker Sonia Lopez, 34, at the opposition demonstration in west Caracas, as she waved a Venezuelan flag signed by now jailed opposition politician Antonio Ledezma.