Maduro presses on with Venezuela vote despite protests
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro pushed on Saturday with a controversial weekend vote for an assembly to rewrite the constitution, despite fierce political opposition, international condemnation and deadly street demonstrations.
Small groups of protesters defied a ban he imposed against anti-government demonstrations, blocking some roads in Caracas with trash.
Other parts of the capital, however, operated normally on the eve of Sunday's divisive election to choose the new assembly.
One protester in the upmarket district of Chacao, who gave his name only as Endderson, told AFP: "I slept here and will stay here all day. I'm here because my mother died of cancer, unable to get medicine, and I was in the street."
Venezuela's opposition has called for protests over the weekend and beyond to press Maduro to drop the election of a 545-seat citizens' "Constituent Assembly" with wide-ranging legislative powers.
The opposition, other Latin American nations, the US and the EU see the new body as a tool to crush democracy in the oil-rich country, where the opposition controls the National Assembly.
- Vote broadly rejected -
The opposition has urged a boycott of the "fraudulent" vote, making it likely that only government supporters will cast ballots.
Some 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, and 80 percent reject Maduro's leadership, according to the polling firm Datanalisis.
Maduro insists the new assembly is the only way to haul Venezuela out of its economic and political crisis, but has not explained how a new constitution would do so.
"We have a card to play: a card that will win this game. And that card is the National Constituent Assembly," he said Friday.
An opposition lawmaker, Freddy Guevara, said the struggle against Maduro started before the Constituent Assembly was mooted, and will continue regardless of the election.
"From Monday, this crisis will deepen," he said.
Already, 113 people have died in four months of protests.
Maduro's decree cracking down on demonstrations warned that those taking part risked up to 10 years in prison.
One activist, a 23-year-old violinist famous for playing at anti-government protests, Wuilly Arteaga, was to face court after being arrested on Thursday, a justice watchdog NGO, Foro Penal, said.
- Struggle to survive -
Meanwhile, Venezuela's citizens struggle to survive.
Long lines were seen in front of supermarkets in the capital and the next-door state of Vargas.
Runaway inflation, caused by the government printing excess money, has reduced salaries to the equivalent of just tens of dollars a month. Food, medicines and staple products are scarce.
International criticism of Maduro and his policies has noticeably sharpened in recent days.
Neighboring Colombia -- a refuge for tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the chaos at home -- said on Friday it would not recognize the results of Sunday's election in Venezuela.
Panama on Saturday said it was following suit, and also backed the US sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
The United States this week imposed sanctions on 13 current and former Venezuelan officials, including police and army chiefs. It ordered the families of embassy personnel to leave the country.
On Friday, US Vice President Mike Pence spoke by telephone to a detained prominent Venezuelan opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, who early this month was moved from prison to house arrest.
In implicit support for the opposition, Pence praised Lopez's "courage."
He also called for the "unconditional release of all political prisoners in Venezuela, free and fair elections, restoration of the National Assembly, and respect for human rights in Venezuela," a statement from his office said.
The United Nations human rights office said it was "deeply concerned" about the "very tense and very difficult situation."
Air France and Iberia both announced they were suspending their flights to the country during the weekend vote. Avianca, a Colombian carrier, cut flights indefinitely from Thursday.
"I bought food to get through the next few days. The US has pulled out its people, my boss has disappeared and we don't know when he'll be back. Best to be prepared," said one 34-year-old Caracas resident, Maximiliano.
Spain's former prime minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero said in a statement sent to AFP that dialogue in Venezuela "could bring an end to the grave crisis."
But an earlier effort he headed ended in failure, and the opposition has made suspension of the Constituent Assembly a condition for it to join talks.
Some in Maduro's administration have broken ranks, most prominently his attorney general. Two diplomats resigned this week in dissent: one at the United Nations and another at the embassy in Panama.