Venezuelans demand elections but Maduro offers a new constitution

Police and protesters clash in Venezuela

Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.
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Anti-government protests continue to grow in Venezuela with one of the largest to date happening on April 19, 2017.

Facing almost daily protest calling for new elections, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday offered what the opposition called a fraudulent alternative: a new constitution.

Speaking to followers in the midst of a May Day march, Maduro said he would be calling a “constitutional assembly” that would replace the 1999 constitution forged by his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez.

Maduro said the deep reform was needed to bring “peace to the republic,” and that he would be providing details about the process late Monday.

Read More: Amid looting and hunger, Venezuelan shopkeepers fortify

But even before the plan had solidified, the opposition was rejecting it as yet another distraction.

María Corina Machado, the leader with the Vente Venezuela party, said the people wouldn’t stop protesting what she called Maduro’s “mafioso dictatorship.”

“We’re not going to change the constitution,” she said in a statement. “We’re going to change you.”

It’s not clear if the opposition will have a seat at the rewriting party. In his cursory comments about the new body, Maduro said it would be made up of “workers, farmers and indigenous” people but that it would primarily be “deeply chavista.”

Monday marked the one month mark since the opposition began taking to the streets to protest the socialist administration amid increasingly violent clashes. The last 30 days have left at least 29 dead, hundreds injured, thousands in detention.

Read More: Venezuelan asylum seeker detained in Miami released amid political pressure

And while the demonstrations have paralyzed large swaths of an already beleaguered country, neither side appears ready to back down.

The opposition has said it will stay in the streets until all of its demands are met. Among them are: general elections, the release of political prisoners and the firing of Supreme Court justices who tried to dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature.

A poll last week of opposition protesters by the DatinCorp political analysis firm found that 35 percent believe Maduro’s immediate ouster is the top priority. By comparison, only 11 percent said general elections should be their top demand.

Maduro, for his part, has made it clear that he’s not stepping down — or moving up the presidential election, which is scheduled for late 2018.

Read More: Venezuela says it’s quitting the OAS

But it’s clear that something needs to give, said DatinCorp President Jesús Seguías.

“The government has a massive power of intimidation and the opposition has the power on the street [and] the international community behind it,” he said. “And all those things mean something during this confrontation.”

While the call for a constitutional assembly might fall flat at home, it might help deflect some of the international pressure that Caracas is under. In recent days, regional governments and the broader international community have been demanding a solution to the crisis.

Last week, amid waning support in the Organization of American States, Venezuela said it would begin withdrawing from the influential body.

“Growing international isolation has important implications for already fragile unity within the ruling party,” wrote Risa Grais-Targow with the New York-based Eurasia Group.

“While it is not enough to force regime change in and of itself, mounting pressure can still shape the preferences of individual stakeholders within chavismo who may already be on the fence,” she added.

But in Venezuela, it doesn’t appear that the offer of a new constitution will calm the waters.

Taking to Twitter Monday, opposition leader Henrique Capriles asked people not to fall for the ploy.

“Facing this constitutional fraud that has just been announced by the dictator, the people should stay on the street and reject this madness,” he said.

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