MIAMI — Venezuela’s crisis is deepening ahead of President Nicolás Maduro’s controversial plans to elect a powerful new Constituent Assembly on Sunday that critics call a plan to consolidate power and create a dictatorship. Maduro says the 545-member assembly, which will have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions, will bring peace to the country.
Even though the government banned protests from Friday to Tuesday, there were clashes between the opposition and the authorities in the nation’s capital, Caracas. Many fear this will escalate the violence in a country already in a volatile situation.
Caracas resident Gabriel Viloria said by telephone he is planning to protest Sunday like he has since the demonstrations began in April. “I am not scared. I’m more afraid of losing my country,” the civil engineer said. “There is no money and the cost of living gets more expensive by the day.”
Sunday’s election has been broadly condemned by countries around the world who say it will weaken democracy. The Constituent Assembly would have the power to shut down the existing opposition-led legislature.
Some point out that Venezuelan law and institutions have been profoundly weakened. Frank Mora is a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration who heads Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center. He said the assembly “does not really constitutionally or politically mark a point of no return, because I believe that happened a long time ago.”
But for many Venezuelans in the country and abroad, rewriting the current constitution would be a big turning point in Maduro’s consolidation of power. A few weeks ago Venezuelans at home and around the world cast thousands of “no” votes in a non-binding referendum organized by the opposition, to clearly say no to a constitutional rewrite.
The OPEC nation is struggling with a steep recession and triple-digit inflation. Extreme shortages of food and medicine have fueled malnutrition and health problems. Near daily anti-government protests have been raging with Venezuelans demanding an end to nearly two decades of socialist rule. Over 100 people have died since the protests began in April.
On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest in Venezuela. According to a statement released by the vice president’s office, Pence reiterated the administration’s pledge that if Maduro imposes its Constituent Assembly, the U.S. “will respond with strong and swift economic sanctions.”
However, Mora feels sanctions of this nature are only about expressing frustration, discontent, or opposition to the state. “I don’t want to underestimate the power of that symbolism but we should not expect that that’s somehow going to change the behavior of the regime, or individuals of the regime, who now feel they have no other option than to hunker down,” he cautioned.
The U.S. has already sanctioned a group of Socialist Party officials. The family members of employees at the U.S. embassy in Venezuela were ordered to leave the country on Thursday.
Federica Davila, a member of the student volunteer group Cruz Verde or Green Cross, that provide first aid to wounded protesters on the street, is gearing up for Sunday’s protests despite the ban.
She said she is not afraid of a potential escalation in violence. “El miedo ha pasado a segundo plano,” she said. Fear for her safety, she said, is now a secondary issue.