CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s increasingly embattled president called Monday for a new constitution as an intensifying protest movement entered a second month with clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.
After hundreds of thousands took to the streets again to call for his ouster, President Nicolas Maduro announced that he was calling for a citizens assembly and a new constitution for the economically flailing South American nation. He said the move was needed to restore peace and stop his political opponents from trying to carry out a coup.
Opposition leaders immediately objected, charging that Maduro was seeking to further erode Venezuela’s constitutional order. Maduro was expected to later give more details about his plan, which is likely to ratchet up tensions even more in a country already on edge.
Many people expect the socialist administration to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates to a constitutional convention. Maduro could then use the writing of a new constitution as an excuse to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and presidential elections that were to be held in 2018, political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.
Polling has suggested the socialists would lose both those elections badly. Opposition leaders have pledged to put top government officials in jail if they win power.
If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the citizens assembly. That could distract them from the drumbeat of near daily street protests that they have managed to keep up for weeks.
“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,” Leon said. “And it has the effect of pushing out the possibility of elections this year and probably next year as well.”
The constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, who began Venezuela’s socialist transformation.
The leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, called the idea of a constitutional assembly a “giant fraud” and “trap” by Maduro and his allies to remain in power at any cost. 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 series of street actions, including a symbolic pot-banging protest when Maduro unveiled the details of his plan and a major demonstration Wednesday.
Earlier Monday, anti-Maduro protesters tried to march on government buildings in downtown Caracas, but police blocked their path — just as authorities have done more than a dozen times in four weeks of near-daily protests. Officers launched tear gas and chased people away from main thoroughfares as the peaceful march turned into chaos.
Opposition lawmaker Jose Olivares was hit in the head with a tear gas canister and was led away with blood streaming down his face. Some demonstrators 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 in the city.
Between the two demonstrations, hundreds of thousands of people filled central roads and highways of the city.
At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured.
People of all ages and class backgrounds are participating in the protests. 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 widespread shortages of food and other basic goods, violence on a par with a war zone, and triple-digit inflation. Maduro accuses his opponents of conspiring to overthrow him and undermine the country’s struggling economy.
Protesters have begun showing up for demonstrations with medical masks and bandanas to protect from the clouds of tear gas that police often deploy without warning. Gas masks are hard to find in the shortage-plagued economy, and the government is limiting people bringing them in from abroad.
Many protesters vowed Monday to keep pressuring the government.
“We’re ready to take the streets for a month or however long is needed for this government to understand that it must go,” said Sergio Hernandez, a computer technology worker.
Authorities set up checkpoints that snarled traffic on main highways and closed the city’s subway system, in what opposition leader Henrique Capriles called a futile attempt to hamper the anti-government march.
“The truth is out and no one can stop it,” Capriles said.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier. Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .
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