Venezuela’s emboldened opposition said President Nicolás Maduro must scrap plans to rewrite the constitution or face increasing pressure and rebellion on the streets, including a 24-hour strike on Thursday.
In a press conference Monday, the coalition of opposition parties known as MUD said more that 7.6 million people had voted in Sunday’s unofficial referendum condemning government plans to overhaul the constitution.
The impressive turnout, despite being a grass-roots effort with few resources and facing government intimidation, represents a clear mandate, the group said.
“The regime must know that we — all of us — will not allow Venezuela to be destroyed,” said Freddy Guevara, the vice president of the opposition-controlled congress. “The fraudulent constituent [assembly] will not resolve the social crisis or bring peace to this country.”
Sunday’s vote came after more than three months of anti-government protests have left almost 100 dead and thousands injured, and paralyzed swaths of the once-prosperous nation.
The political crisis has only deepened amid fears that Maduro will use the proposed National Constituent Assembly to destroy the last vestiges of democracy in the country and cling to power.
On Monday, government officials downplayed the opposition’s show of force, and said they were pushing ahead with plans to hold a vote on July 30 to elect more than 500 delegates to the new body.
In a press conference, Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of the Libertador district of Caracas and a Maduro loyalist, claimed, without offering proof, that fewer than 2 million people cast a ballot in the opposition referendum.
“The right-wing always talks about fraud but there’s no one in Venezuela who has defrauded Venezuelans and their own followers more than the MUD,” he said.
He also claimed that the government-backed mock vote for the constituent assembly, which was also held Sunday, saw a far larger turnout.
But it’s doubtful the administration believes its own propaganda. In recent days Maduro has been stepping up calls for renewed negotiations amid the growing body-count and defections within the ruling party.
Domestic and international pressure are taking their toll on loyalties within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The party which is key to Maduro’s “staying power,” Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group, said in a statement.
“To the extent that [Sunday’s] vote prompts additional defections — or even the threat of them — Maduro could be forced to show some flexibility with regards to his planned 30 July vote, whether that means delaying the vote to explore a potential dialogue, or canceling it altogether,” she wrote.
Defections aside, analysts say the government still seems to have the armed forces on it side, which limits the opposition’s ability to push for change.
“We have the people but they have the guns,” explained Omar Ávila, an opposition deputy. “We can’t let this turn into a civil war.”
Sunday’s opposition vote was also held in more than 75 countries, and the international community has been taking notice.
While the United States has been ratcheting up sanctions on Venezuelan officials, it has to tread lightly to avoid accusations from the region of meddling, said David Smilde, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Any unilateral sanctions that the U.S. can take will be counterproductive,” he said. “But there should be talks among Latin American countries about collective sanctions.”
If powerful neighbors banded together to reject the National Constituent Assembly, for example, “that could have a real impact,” Smilde said.
On Monday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was in Havana meeting with Cuban leader Raúl Castro — a staunch Maduro ally. The Financial Times, citing anonymous sources, said the two men planned to talk about building regional support for a negotiated solution in Venezuela.
But Colombia’s Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín downplayed the report, saying the primary reason for the visit was trade. Even so, she conceded the issue of Venezuela was likely to come up.
“It’s no secret that everybody is interested in what’s happening in Venezuela and presidents talk about Venezuela also,” she said, reiterating the government’s desire to see renewed talks in the country.
In addition to Thursday’s national strike, the opposition said it’s planning other measures. On Tuesday, the National Assembly will begin naming new Supreme Court judges. However, since Maduro and the courts don’t recognize congress’ authority, those petitions are likely to be ignored. And on Wednesday, the opposition coalition will sign a pledge laying out the groundwork for a “government of national unity.”
But in the statement read by Guevara, the group said it’s still open to a negotiated solution to the crisis as long as the government kills its plans to rewrite the constitution.
“Otherwise,” Guevara warned, “we are absolutely committed to deepening the political conflict in order to conquer our liberty.”
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