Venezuela thwarts anti-Maduro referendum, foes protest

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(Reuters) Outraged opposition leaders vowed today to focus their battle to remove socialist President Nicolas Maduro on peaceful street protests after judicial and electoral authorities shot down their drive for a referendum against him.

The suspension of the opposition’s push for a plebiscite leaves Hugo Chavez’s successor on track to complete his term, which ends in early 2019, despite the OPEC nation’s crushing economic crisis and his own personal unpopularity.

President Nicolas Maduro
President Nicolas Maduro

It also deals a massive blow to the opposition coalition, which was buoyed by winning legislative elections at the end of last year but has then seen its all-consuming effort for a vote to recall Maduro this year come to nothing.

“Our response will not be submission or violence, but a fight,” said coalition head Jesus Torrealba, comparing the Venezuelan opposition’s situation with Polish leader Lech Walesa’s battle against communism in the 1980s.

“The government has 80 percent of the country against it; it does not have international support, and it’s breaking both the law and the constitution.”

With the opposition due to announce strategies later on Friday, a few dozen angry students took to the streets of Caracas in the morning. They were blocked from marching by police.

“Socialism has failed here, everyone can see that,” said student Saray Nava, 18, among demonstrators outside a university. “This disaster affects us young people the most. We don’t want to leave like so many have. We want to work in Venezuela, have children in Venezuela.”

Citing court orders, Venezuela’s election board on Thursday suspended the next phase in the opposition’s referendum push – the collection of 4 million signatures to trigger the plebiscite – that had been scheduled for next week.

Critics say both the judiciary and the election authority are both subservient to the government, and barely any of their decisions have gone against Maduro since his rule began in 2013.

Adding to their fury, opposition figures published a purported court document saying eight of them, including Torrealba and twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, had been ordered not to leave Venezuela.

Some of the harder-line opposition figures, including veteran activist Maria Corina Machado and jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez’s wife Lilian Tintori, are urging civil disobedience. “This dictatorship will not grant us anything, we have to achieve change in peace, democracy and – above all – in the street,” Lopez’s Popular Will party said.

In 2014, opposition protests led to 43 deaths, including security force members and both government and opposition supporters. Many of Venezuela’s 30 million people are worried about a fresh bout of unrest.

Venezuelans are already suffering from a cruel economic crisis that has families skipping meals amid food shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected three years ago after Chavez died from cancer, has seen his popularity tumble to just above 20 percent in hand with a recession now in its third year.

While foes say failed socialist policies are to blame, the government points to the plunge in oil prices and alleges an U.S.-led “economic war” against it.

Maduro was in Azerbaijan on Friday for the first leg of a tour of oil producers as he seeks measures to raise crude prices.

Government officials said the opposition had brought their troubles on themselves by delaying their request for a referendum and then committing fraud such as adding dead people’s names to the initial signature drive.

“Justice is being done,” senior Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.

Thursday’s decision came despite intense international pressure on Maduro – from the White House to around an increasingly conservative Latin American region — to allow the referendum.

“The move leaves the opposition with no other option than to focus on street protests, increasing the near-term risk of a social eruption,” the Eurasia consultancy wrote.

“However, the government is clearly willing to resort to significant repression to defend the regime, which means President Nicolas Maduro can probably retain power for now.”

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