Venezuela opposition turns heat up on Maduro with strike call
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition called on Monday for a national strike against President Nicolas Maduro in an escalation of protests after a massive symbolic referendum at the weekend.
"Hour zero is starting," opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on behalf of the Democratic Unity coalition, using army jargon for a decisive operation and accusing the leftist government of failing to heed the will of Venezuelans.
"We call on the whole country this Thursday to join massively and peacefully a national civic strike of 24 hours as a mechanism of pressure and preparation for the definitive escalation which will be next week," he added.
The opposition said it would also take steps to set up a "national unity" government and name new alternative judges to the pro-Maduro Supreme Court, raising the possibility of a parallel state structure.
After months of demonstrations that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition said it brought 7.6 million people out on Sunday for an unofficial vote intended to de-legitimize a leader they call a dictator.
Maduro's foes are demanding a general election and want to stop his plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
If that plan was withdrawn, the opposition would be prepared to dialogue with the government "without manipulations and deceits," Guevara added in a news conference.
The hardball opposition strategy recalls events before a short-lived coup against Maduro's predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
On three questions at Sunday's event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly - by 98 percent - to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro's term ends, according to academics monitoring the vote for the opposition.
'SHOW OF FORCE'
Sunday's reported 7.6 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.
Opposition organizers said the turnout followed just two weeks of organization, with voting at just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 for the 2015 vote.
"The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela's opposition," New York-based Torino Capital said.
"The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election."
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and long-serving foreign minister for Chavez, narrowly won election in 2013 and his ratings have plunged to just over 20 percent during a brutal economic crisis in the South American OPEC member.
Though polls show the opposition has majority support and his foes repeatedly call for a free and fair election as their top demand, Maduro insists they are U.S. pawns intent on sabotaging the economy and bringing him down through violence.
Most Venezuelans oppose the Constituent Assembly, which will have power to rewrite the constitution and annul the current opposition-led legislature, but Maduro is pressing on anyway for the vote in two weeks' time.
"The ruling Socialist Party cannot win a free and fair election of any kind, and the Constituent Assembly is designed to resolve their collective electability problem by tilting the electoral playing field," Eurasia consultancy said.
"And even if it is generating discomfort internally, including among the security apparatus, most groups within the ruling coalition seem willing to see if Maduro can in fact get away with it, given the fact that exit costs remain very high."
Maduro, whose term is due to end in early 2019, dismissed Sunday's event as an internal exercise by the opposition with no bearing on his government. He says the Constituent Assembly is the only way to bring peace to the nation of 30 million people.
State media largely ignored Sunday's event, concentrating instead on a simultaneous, government-organized practice run for the July 30 vote. Maduro's allies accused the opposition of inflating numbers with multiple voting and false registrations.
"Ten-year-old kids voted, thousands of minors, Australians, U.S. citizens ... a gigantic fraud," Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez said, mocking Sunday's vote which also took place among Venezuela's large diaspora communities.
Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada called a news conference to accuse international media of complicity with the opposition to exaggerate Sunday's vote and denigrate Maduro.
He said some media had passed off photos of government supporters participating in the practice run as if they were opposition sympathizers at their referendum event.
The total vote would be impossible to check, he said, as opposition organizers were going to burn ballots. The coalition has said it will do that in coming days to keep the vote secret and prevent reprisals by officials.
"Yesterday was a super experiment in manipulating reality," Moncada said. "The media have a permanent pact with the opposition."
This year's political turmoil has taken a heavy toll on Venezuela: 95 deaths in unrest since April, thousands of injuries, hundreds of arrests, and further damage to an economy in its fourth year of decline.
The latest fatality came on Sunday when gunmen shot a 61-year-old woman in a crowd of opposition voters in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia. Hundreds of people were besieged in a church for hours during the melee, a witness said.
Venezuelan bonds were largely unchanged on Monday, perhaps reflecting sentiment that the opposition vote was not a short-term game-changer. The black market currency rate, another closely-followed indicator, was stable at nearly 8,500 bolivars to the dollar.
(For a graphic on Venezuela's dark days, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2qsTmHg)
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Alexandra Ulmer and Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Francisco Aguilar in Barinas; Editing by Howard Goller and Andrew Hay)
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