, Caracas, Venezuela, Jul 20 – Two people were killed in clashes Thursday in Venezuela during a nationwide strike against President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to re-write the country’s constitution.
Thursday’s 24-hour stoppage affected areas of the capital and other regions, including the country’s second-biggest city of Maracaibo, with businesses shuttered, public transport stalled and streets often deserted.
Riot police and soldiers fired tear gas and buck shot at protesters, who blocked streets with debris in parts of Caracas and set a police booth on fire. Street blockades continued overnight.
Prosecutors said a 24-year-old man was killed on the outskirts of Caracas and a 23-year-old man was killed in the city of Valencia. They did not say who was responsible for the deaths.
This brings to 99 the death toll in anti-government protests since April.
“I wish this strike were indefinite until this dictatorship leaves,” said Coromoto Garcia, 48, who was at a street blocked by protesters in eastern Caracas.
Protesters also hurled rocks at workers with VTV state television, who were rescued by riot police.
Nearly 370 protesters were arrested in Caracas and four other states, the NGO Foro Penal reported.
“It doesn’t matter losing a day’s work if we’re losing the country,” said one striker, a 34-year-old owner of a small Caracas construction firm who only gave his first name, Omar.
“I’m joining the strike to rescue the little remaining for us, to increase pressure” on Maduro, he said.
– “They’ll fire me” –
In pro-government parts of the capital, however, life went on as normal.
Some workers in public offices were reluctant to take part, scared it would cost them their jobs.
“If I don’t go to work, they’ll fire me,” a 39-year-old public worker who gave her name as Carolina told AFP.
Maduro seized on the areas of normality to claim victory over the strikers, saying key sectors were “100 percent” unaffected by the strike.
Maria Francis, a 53-year-old worker in the Caracas metro system, called it an “absurd strike.” The opposition, she said, “wants the United States to come in and take over the country.”
Opposition leaders, however, claimed 85 percent adherence to the strike. “The people have given evidence that will not bend to their knees,” said senior opposition figure Henrique Capriles.
– Controversial election –
Maduro is under fire over plans for a July 30 election of a citizens’ body — a “Constituent Assembly” — to rewrite the constitution.
Critics see it as a power grab.
US President Donald Trump has warned of unspecified “swift economic actions” if the vote goes ahead.
Maduro said the threat made him “more than ever” determined to hold the election.
Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on its oil exports. Around a third of its daily crude production of 1.9 million barrels goes to the United States.
The head of the state-run oil company PDVSA told state television that the strike had not affected its operations.
The strike was supported by major business associations, labor unions and transport workers. But the government is the country’s main employer with three million jobs, and controls the oil company, which brings in 96 percent of Venezuela’s income.
The strike is “a struggle between the business community and impoverished population against the government, which is also broke but controls (Venezuela’s) few resources,” said analyst Luis Vicente Leon of the Datanalisis polling firm.
– Loyal military –
The opposition is feeling invigorated in its anti-Maduro campaign by an unofficial vote last weekend in which 7.6 million Venezuelans — more than a third of the electorate — overwhelmingly cast ballots against the Constituent Assembly.
It is also buoyed by support from abroad, including from the European Union, the Organization of American States and major Latin American nations.
Datanalisis surveys have shown that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans reject Maduro’s leadership.
But the president has brushed aside moves to oust him because he can count on the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, which has been given control of swaths of the economy.
Some in Maduro’s camp have broken ranks, most prominently his attorney general, Luisa Ortega, who has branded the Constituent Assembly unconstitutional.
On Thursday, Ortega was joined by Isaias Medina, who resigned from her post as a senior Venezuelan diplomat at the United Nations.
“I cannot be part of a government that is systematically attacking protesters” and not respecting their right to demonstrate, Medina said in a video filmed at the UN headquarters in New York.
Venezuela’s economy is expected to shrink by nine percent this year, said Asdrubal Oliveros of the consulting firm Ecoanalitica. Inflation is expected to top 700 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.