CARACAS – Venezuela’s opposition called on Monday for a national strike against President Nicolas Maduro in an escalation of protests after a massive symbolic referendum at the weekend.
“Hour zero is starting,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said on behalf of the Democratic Unity coalition, using army jargon for a decisive operation and accusing the leftist government of failing to heed the will of Venezuelans.
“We call on the whole country this Thursday to join massively and peacefully a national civic strike of 24 hours as a mechanism of pressure and preparation for the definitive escalation which will be next week,” he added.
The opposition said it would also take steps to set up a “national unity” government and name new alternative judges to the pro-Maduro Supreme Court, raising the possibility of a parallel state structure.
After months of demonstrations that have led to nearly 100 deaths, the Democratic Unity coalition said it brought 7.6 million people out on Sunday for an unofficial vote intended to de-legitimize a leader they call a dictator.
Maduro’s foes are demanding a general election and want to stop his plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
If that plan was withdrawn, the opposition would be prepared to dialogue with the government “without manipulations and deceits,” Guevara added in a news conference.
The hardball opposition strategy recalls events before a short-lived coup against Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
On three questions at Sunday’s event, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly – by 98 per cent – to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro’s term ends, according to academics monitoring the vote for the opposition.
Sunday’s reported 7.6 million participation compared with 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections that it won by a landslide and 7.3 million votes for the opposition in a 2013 presidential poll narrowly won by Maduro.
Opposition organizers said the turnout followed just two weeks of organization, with voting at just 2,000 polling stations, compared to 14,000 for the 2015 vote.
“The result is a remarkable show of force for Venezuela’s opposition,” New York-based Torino Capital said.
“The results seem to confirm that the opposition would easily defeat the government in any election.”
This year’s political turmoil has taken a heavy toll on Venezuela: 95 deaths in unrest since April, thousands of injuries, hundreds of arrests, and further damage to an economy in its fourth year of decline.
The latest fatality came on Sunday when gunmen shot a 61-year-old woman in a crowd of opposition voters in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia. Hundreds of people were besieged in a church for hours during the melee, a witness said.
Venezuelan bonds were largely unchanged on Monday, perhaps reflecting sentiment that the opposition vote was not a short-term game-changer. The black market currency rate, another closely-followed indicator, was stable at nearly 8,500 bolivars to the dollar.