CARACAS: Opposition activists hide behind shields as they clash with the police during a march towards the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in an offensive against President Maduro and his call for Constituent Assembly. – AFP

CARACAS: Venezuela’s opposition has called a fresh 48-hour general strike against embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to have the constitution rewritten giving him broader powers. The walk-out comes as violent and sometimes deadly protests continue amid a political and economic crisis that has led to shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation. “We are calling out the entire people, all groups in society, for a 48-hour strike” Wednesday and Thursday, lawmaker Simon Calzadilla said.

Calzadilla said that the strike would be capped on Friday with a march demanding that Maduro officially scrap his Constituent Assembly vote scheduled for July 30. Earlier on Saturday, police on motorcycles fired tear gas to break up an opposition march on the Supreme Court to press demands that elected socialist Maduro leave office. That rally was also meant as a show of support for a slate of 33 magistrates-a so-called shadow supreme court-whose names were put forward Friday by the opposition to replace Venezuela’s current high court, which is closely allied with Maduro and frequently rules in his favor.

Emboldened by a nationwide strike on Thursday that paralyzed parts of the capital Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, opposition leaders held a mock swearing-in ceremony Friday for the shadow court’s new “judges.” Many of the actual court’s justices were hastily appointed shortly before Maduro’s ruling party lost its majority in congress. “Everyone has given their backing to the new Supreme Court,” tweeted Freddy Guevara, a leader of the opposition-led congress.

 

‘They won’t frighten me’

 

“We support the new judges because they will restore independence to the Supreme Court,” said 43-year-old demonstrator Luis Torrealba, marching with his wife and teenage son. Their swearing in was condemned by the government as “incitement to subversion” and an act of “treason,” and officials threatened to throw the dissidents into prison.

One of the judges was arrested by intelligence services, the National Assembly said on Twitter. Maduro said the opposition’s bid to derail the constitutional assembly would fail. “We are going to be implacable if they try to use violence to stop what cannot be stopped,” the president warned on television.

In Saturday’s march, hundreds of people took to a key Caracas motorway to head downtown toward the court building. But uniformed National Guard troops riding motorcycles fired tear gas to disperse them. Wuilly Arteaga, a violinist who has gained celebrity for playing at many marches, was injured and taken to a clinic. The 23-year-old was seen with blood pouring from cuts on the left side of his face. He said later he had been struck with buckshot.

“They are not going to frighten me,” Arteaga said in a video he posted on Twitter.  The musician became an icon of the protest movement when he was pictured calmly weaving through tear gas with his violin on his shoulder, playing the classic Venezuelan folk song “Alma Llanera.” Immortalized in photographs from that performance during a demonstration on May 8, he said he meant it as a “message of peace.”

 

Deadly marches

 

With the situation already inflamed, the stakes have risen further, after the United States threatened economic sanctions if Maduro proceeds with his controversial vote for a body to rewrite the constitution. The president has vowed to maintain the election of 545 members to the Constitutional Assembly.

Saturday’s demonstrations, like many others since April, were organized by the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of political opposition groups. The number of deaths in protests across the country since April has reached 103 — about one fatality per day. Datanalisis surveys have shown that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans reject Maduro’s leadership. But the president has brushed aside moves to oust him because he can count on the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, which has been given control of swaths of the economy. – AFP