Venezuela: What is happening today?

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A look at the country’s ongoing protests against the government of President Maduro and the current political situation.

Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, has seen almost daily demonstrations in recent weeks, some of which have turned violent.

Critics are accusing President Nicolas Maduro of moving towards a dictatorship, and want him to resign.

But Maduro says the opposition is conspiring with foreign entities, specifically the US, to destabilise the country.

So far this month, at least 28 people have been killed in political unrest.

Several of them have been shot in anti-government protests that have erupted into clashes with riot police.

Maduro has announced the creation of a new popular assembly with the ability to re-write the constitution, which foes decried as a power-grab to stifle weeks of anti-government protests.

Maduro has triggered an article of the constitution that creates a super-body known as a “constituent assembly”.

It can dissolve public powers and call general elections, echoing a previous assembly created by his predecessor Hugo Chavez in 1999 soon after he won office.

The opposition’s main demands are for elections, the release of jailed activists and autonomy for the opposition-led congress.

The country is in the middle of a crippling economic crisis that has led to high food prices and a lack of basic goods.

Maduro says the economic crisis is due to a US-backed capitalist conspiracy.

1. How did the protests start?

Instability and political turmoil reached a peak on March 30, when Venezuela’s Supreme Court magistrates, aligned with socialist President Nicolas Maduro, ruled that it will take over the opposition-led Congress’ legislative powers, in a move condemned by opposition parties as an attempt to install a dictatorship.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court suspended the elections of four legislators – three that were enrolled with the opposition and one with the ruling party – for alleged voting irregularities.

The opposition accused the court of trying to strip them of their super-majority, and went ahead and swore in three of the legislators in question.

In response, the Supreme Court ruled that the entire National Assembly was in contempt and all decisions it made would be null.

The deadlock continued, when electoral officials suspended a stay-or-go referendum against Maduro and postponed regional elections until 2017.

After the National Assembly refused to approve the country’s state-run oil company, PDVSA ,from forming joint ventures with private companies, the government went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it will take over the opposition-led Congress’ legislative powers.

Security forces violently repressed protests that broke out the next day, and although the court quickly reversed its decision, street protests have continued.

2. What other problems is Venezuela facing?

Venezuela is not facing only one crisis but multiple interconnected crises.

Key among them is the state of the economy. In January 2017, according to estimates by the Finance and Economic Development Commission of the National Assembly (AN), it was predicted that inflation will close this year at 679.73 percent.

However according to the International Monetary Fund, this year and next year’s projection is even higher. The organisation estimates that inflation will reach 720.5 percent this year, the highest in the Americas, and  2,068.5 percent by 2018.

However, the economic crisis is hitting Venezuela’s public health system the hardest. In the country’s public hospitals, medicine and equipment are increasingly not available.

During a three-year economic crisis and record levels of violent crime and poverty, Maduro’s popularity has dipped to its lowest point of the last few years.

He also has been accused of using authoritarian methods to stop dissent.

Venezuela’s political opposition has been represented mainly by the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a coalition of different parties including centrist, centre-left, left-wing and centre-right parties.

Many Venezuelans distrust parts of the coalition, which includes figures who were active in politics decades ago.

The strength of the coalition has also been hit by internal power struggles as well as disagreements over ideology and policy.

3. What is the government defending?

Maduro ordered the military on to the streets to defend the leftist  “Bolivarian Revolution” launched by his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 1999.

“From the first reveille, from the first rooster crow, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces will be in the streets … saying, ‘Long live the Bolivarian Revolution’,” he said in a televised address.

Maduro denounced his opponents as “traitors” and praised the military’s “unity and revolutionary commitment”.

4. What are the latest developments?

Venezuelan authorities have banned top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years, the latest move in an increasingly tense power struggle.

Capriles, 44, has been the most prominent leader of Venezuela’s opposition over the past decade, twice coming close to winning the presidency.

The current wave of marches, the most sustained protests against Maduro since 2014, has sparked regular clashes in which youths and National Guard troops exchange volleys of rocks and tear gas.

“We are protesting, because we are in disagreement with the government of Nicolas Maduro. We are experiencing a serious crisis that is suffocating us,” journalist Leonardo Bruzual told Al Jazeera.

“For those of us who work and earn a normal salary, we can barely eat. We literally have young boys and girls, kids, elderly, eating from the garbage. We want a change in the government,” he added.

Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami said on Friday the country is facing what he calls an “unconventional war” led by opposition groups working in concert with criminal gangs.

Riot police firing tear gas fought running street battles in the east, west, and south of Caracas with demonstrators demanding the ouster of Maduro, witnesses quoted by AFP news agency said.

On Thursday, the president said the opposition had agreed to new talks, but his opponents denied the claim, saying the only way forward was new elections.

Senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles slammed Maduro as a “dictator” and “mythomaniac”.

Eleven Latin American countries issued a joint statement this week calling on authorities to set a timeframe for elections to “allow for a quick solution to the crisis that Venezuela is living through”.

Venezuela has said it will withdraw from the Organization of American States in reaction to pressure from the bloc over the government’s handling of the country’s political crisis.

Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said the government would launch a two-year process to pull out of the Washington-based regional diplomatic grouping that it has been a member of for more than 65 years.

“Tomorrow, as President Nicolas Maduro has instructed, we will present a letter of complaint to the OAS and we will begin a process that will take 24 months,” she said in a televised address on Wednesday.

 

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