Thousands of Venezuelans are rallying for a second day Thursday against President Nicolas Maduro’s regime as it prepares for a national vote next week.
Hours after a national strike gripped Venezuela on Wednesday, the US Treasury Department announced it is slapping sanctions against 13 Venezuelan government officials.
“As President Trump has made clear, the United States will not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement.
“The sanctions come ahead of the planned July 30, 2017, election orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of a National Constituent Assembly … that will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution and may choose to dissolve Venezuelan state institutions.”
Throughout Venezuela, Maduro critics launched a 48-hour strike Wednesday morning, deploring the possibility that their President could gain more sweeping powers.
The protesters’ goal: For Maduro to abandon his plans of rewriting the nation’s constitution, opposition leaders said at a news conference.
“The call we’ve made for the coming days will require each of you to ask yourselves what role you have to play in Venezuela’s rescue,” said Freddy Guevara, opposition leader and vice president of the National Assembly.
Protester Oscar Leandro said the daily demonstrations would continue through election day despite the street battles with authorities.
“They want to strike more fear in the people so they can go ahead with their election,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to stop that from happening. We’re going to go everyday into the streets, we’re going to go on strike for two days this week. Then we’re going to take the capital and we’re not going to allow them to have their election.”
But Maduro has said that rewriting the constitution is needed to restore order, apply justice and re-establish peace in Venezuela.
Bloodshed and dire conditions
For months, violence spiraled out of control as people struggle to get food and medicine.
Pockets of violence erupted again Wednesday, though so far not to the extent of recent deadly clashes.
Police with riot gear and shields clashed Wednesday with masked protesters who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails.
“Lara, Barquisimeto and other states join the strike,” CNN Venezuela tweeted.
The political upheaval started in late March, when the Venezuelan Supreme Court dissolved Parliament and transferred all legislative powers to itself.
The opposition claimed Maduro was creating a dictatorship.
Even though the decision was reversed three days later, it triggered a series of bloody street protests that have lasted for months.
As of Wednesday, 105 people have been killed in Venezuela’s political unrest since April, the attorney general’s office told CNN.
Silent protests, too
The normally bustling streets of Caracas were silent early Wednesday as the strike paralyzed parts of the capital.
“No one wants to keep living under Maduro’s regime,” tweeted Richard Blanco, a National Assembly member representing Caracas.
Protesters from across the country participated in the strike.
More than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away from Caracas, in the Great Savanna region, indigenous people blocked a road in the village of Kumarakapay.
“Pemon indigenous people from the Great Savanna on 48-hour strike Kumarakapay,” tweeted Americo De Grazia, another member of the National Assembly.
Rallying support on both sides
Wednesday’s strike is not the first of its kind in Venezuela.
Last week, millions voted in a nonbinding referendum to reject Maduro’s controversial plan but the government condemned the poll as illegal.
The decision was followed by a 24-hour strike that turned violent.
Now, both sides are rallying support ahead of the July 30 vote.
Before the strike began, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez urged Venezuelans to keep up protests in a 15-minute video posted online.
Lopez called Maduro and his supporters a “very clear threat,” saying their goal is to undermine democracy and achieve the “absolute submission of the Venezuelan people.”
Lopez, the former mayor of a Caracas district with ambitions for the presidency, was released from prison to house arrest earlier this month. He had been detained since early 2014 over accusations of inciting anti-government protests.