Venezuela president grants referendum on crisis reform

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has agreed to a referendum on contested constitutional reforms in an apparent concession to critics in his own camp as he resists opposition efforts to fire him.The surprise announcement late Thursday followed two months of deadly unrest during anti-government protests and signs of division in the socialist leader’s side.

President Nicolas Maduro

The opposition says his constitutional reform plan is a bid to cling to power — and key allies such as Attorney General Luisa Ortega have broken ranks with him, arguing it is undemocratic.

Maduro said at a cabinet meeting late Thursday that “the new constitution will be put to a referendum so that the people can say whether they agree or not.”

Maduro aims to set up an elected constitutional reform body called a “constituent assembly.” His opponents say he will fill it with his allies.

Ortega had filed a legal challenge against the plan earlier Thursday. Maduro said those who opposed his plan were “traitors.”

Ortega has been a traditional ally of the socialist leadership since the time of Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

Her challenge at the constitutional court does not have legal force to stop Maduro’s plan, but “shows the divisions and disagreements within Chavismo,” said political analyst Luis Vicente Leon. Elected in 2013, Maduro is resisting opposition calls for early elections to remove him.

The opposition blames him for severe food and medicine shortages. He says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.

State prosecutors say 61 people have been killed in two months of unrest, which have seen protesters clash daily with riot police.

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