Venezuela opposition parties to boycott constitutional assembly

Protesters force tank's retreat in Caracas

A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.
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A group of anti-government protesters force a police tank's retreat after a confrontation on a highway in Caracas, Venezuela on May 1, 2017.

Twenty-one opposition parties in Venezuela said they will not participate in the government’s plans to overhaul the 1999 constitution, saying the scheme is illegal and designed to strengthen President Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power.

In a joint communique Wednesday, members of the MUD opposition coalition said anyone who participated in the process would be “complicit in this fraud against the constitution.”

The government on Wednesday began accepting applications to fill the 545 seats of a “constituent assembly,” and the delegates will be elected in July.

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The opposition and legal scholars say a national referendum is required before a constituent assembly can convene. And they’re accusing the administration of creating sub-categories of delegates to maximize the voice of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

“This fraudulent proposal not only holds the will of the people hostage, but it’s being imposed by force and by repressing the Venezuelan people,” the MUD said in a statement. “[We] call on all Venezuelans to defend the Constitution.”

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The strategy carries risks. In 2005, opposition parties boycotted congressional elections to protests the government of late President Hugo Chávez. As a result, the National Assembly became a rubber-stamp body that helped strengthen El Comandante’s rule.

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles was among the protesters tear-gassed on May 29, in Caracas. Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, is seen in this footage marching with protesters while tear gas, water cannons, and loud bangs go o

Venezuela has been racked by two months of anti-government protests that have left at least 60 people dead and led to thousands of arrests. Demonstrators have been calling for general elections, the release of political prisoners and humanitarian aid.

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In response to the pressure, the socialist administration said it would hold overdue regional elections in December, and allow the constitutional reform. And while Maduro has said he will hold presidential elections in 2018, as scheduled, the constituent assembly could have other ideas.

The assembly “might or might not totally overthrow the constitution,” said a senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on background. And that might rearrange the electoral calendar or dispense with elections altogether, analysts said.

Also Wednesday, the Organization of American States will hold a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan crisis. The body is expected to propose mediation or negotiations in Venezuela to try to quell the bloodshed.

In Caracas, government supporters held a rally to protest the OAS meeting and what they view as foreign intervention.

Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez was awarded the medal of freedom by Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Lopez was not in attendance as he is in prison on a 13-year sentence.

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss