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VENEZUELA

Venezuela braces for anti-government rallies

In Caracas, soldiers stand by a supermarket where Venezuelans queue up for food supplies, 15 May 2016.
In Caracas, soldiers stand by a supermarket where Venezuelans queue up for food supplies, 15 May 2016. Reuters/Marco Bello

In Venezuela, public discontent was to spill into the streets on Wednesday, as the opposition called protests against a government-decreed emergency security measures. The turnout could indicate whether the opposition can channel social and economic tension into its push to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office.

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For several months, Venezuelans have faced surging prices as well as food and power shortages as plummeting oil revenues drove the Gross Domestic Product down by 5.7 percent last year, and inflation up by a record 180.9 percent.

Government attempts to manage the hardships have taken a toll on its approval rating, with President Nicolas Maduro’s declaration of an economic emergency in February translating into strict rationing and forced holidays for civilians.

“I have to adapt my work hours with my other activity, which is finding something to eat,” Alejandra told RFI correspondent Julien Gonzalez in Caracas, after she was turned away after queuing up for food supplies. “The economic emergency has done nothing but drive up prices. It makes me frustrated and angry.”

“I don’t know how long people are going to be able to cope,” said Simon, a waiter who twice voted for Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, but now supports the opposition. “I hope there will be a recall referendum, so we can get out of this uncertainty and decide whether we still want this president.”

At the start of May, the main opposition group of parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), gathered 1.8 million signatures calling for a referendum to remove Maduro from office – a number far higher than the 1 percent of eligible voters required to begin organising a vote.

But with election officials having yet to validate the process, and wary that the government is trying to suppress any form of dissent with the emergency order, opposition leader Henrique Capriles has called on people to respond with defiance.

“We refuse the President’s decree, and we call on the people to ignore what the government is trying to impose,” Capriles told reporters. “If Maduro wants to apply this decree, he will need to bring the tanks and warplanes into the street, because he will have to apply it by force.”

The MUD swept to victory in legislative elections last December, but Maduro’s party retains executive power, as well as a perceived influence over the Supreme Court, many of whose judges were appointed during the rule of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

For observers, there is little doubt the opposition is using the march against the emergency order to pressure public institutions into validating the referendum.

“By coming out in the streets in large numbers, they hope to put some pressure on the Supreme Court to recognise the legitimacy of what they’re trying to do,” says Victor Bulmer-Thomas, associate fellow in the Americas program at Chatham House in London.

It remains to be seen whether they will draw enough support to pressure institutions into validating their request for a referendum by the year’s end.

But the economic situation, the call for a referendum and now the emergency decree have stoked tensions between supporters and opponents of the government, and the coming protests will be a gauge for whether Maduro can hold onto power.

“If he can delay [the recall referendum] until next year, then even if he lost it, it would simply mean that his vice president would see out the rest of his term,” says Bulmer-Thomas. “If he loses it this year, there would be fresh elections, and of course, the way things are at the moment, the opposition would be likely to win those.

“So what we’re talking about is a very existential crisis for the Venezuelan government. Its whole present and future might be decided in the next few days.”
 

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