On Thursday, the U.S. government ordered family members of employees at its embassy in Venezuela to leave as the nation's political crisis deepened ahead of a controversial vote critics contend will end democracy in the oil-rich country. Similarly, Canada warned its nationals against non-essential travel to Venezuela and urged citizens already there to leave. As well as ordering relatives to leave, the U.S. State Department on Thursday also authorized the voluntary departure of any U.S. government employee at its compound-like hilltop embassy in Caracas, where hyperinflation is about to hit 1,000%.
Meanwhile, as France 24 notes, Venezuela careened towards a "showdown" on its streets Friday between anti-government protesters and security forces, raising international alarm at worsening deadly unrest. The opposition called fresh nationwide demonstrations to defy a new government ban on rallies ahead of a controversial vote Sunday to elect a body to rewrite the constitution.
As protests mount, culminating with a two-day general strike that ended on Thuesday, violence has continued to rage on the street, with Reuters reporting that another seven people were killed during the latest opposition-led strike against President Nicolas Maduro's planned election for a powerful new Constituent Assembly on Sunday. Four months of protests against unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro have already claimed 112 lives, according to prosecutors.
The state prosecutor's office said four people died on Thursday amid the unrest: A 49-year-old man in Carabobo state, a 23 year-old in Lara state, a 29 year-old in Anzoategui state and a 16-year old in the middle class Caracas area of El Paraiso. A 23-year-old man and a 30-year-old man were also killed in western Merida state and a 16-year-old boy was killed in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Petare during clashes on Wednesday. This week's death toll topped last week's one-day strike, when five people were killed.
On Friday, Maduro's critics plan to pile more pressure on the unpopular socialist leader by holding roadblocks across the nation dubbed "The Takeover of Venezuela". "We're going to keep fighting, we're not leaving the streets," said opposition lawmaker Jorge Millan.
Tensions have been heightened by a decree from Maduro banning protests and warning that anyone who marches against the "Constituent Assembly" risks up to 10 years in prison. The opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, shot back with a tweet saying "the regime declared we can't demonstrate... We will respond with the TAKING OF VENEZUELA."
It called mass protests for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "The whole country must tell the world this Constituent Assembly has no legitimacy," opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara said at a press conference
Maduro countered by urging the opposition to "abandon the road to insurrection." He urged immediate dialogue, but signaled he was not backing down. Any talks, he said, should happen "before the election and installation of the Constituent Assembly."
In recent months, Venezuela's opposition, which controls the National Assembly, has urged civil disobedience against what it terms Maduro's dictatorship. It is pushing on with its own strategy of trying to force Maduro from power through early elections. Approximately 70% of Venezuelans oppose plans for the constituent assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.
Skirmishes in the street between supporters of the opposition and the Maduro government have become commonplace. Volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and homemade bombs arced through the air in the capital during the strike. Barricades made from debris littered the eastern part of the city, with signs reading "No more dictatorships!"
"Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?" asked Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.
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Meanwhile, President Trump has warned his administration could impose economic sanctions on Venezuela if Maduro goes ahead with the vote to create the legislative superbody. The Constituent Assembly would have power to rewrite the constitution and shut down the existing opposition-led legislature, which the opposition maintains would cement dictatorship in Venezuela.
Many streets remained barricaded and deserted on Thursday during a second day of a nationwide work stoppage. Plenty of rural areas and working-class urban neighborhoods were bustling, however, and the strike appeared less massively supported than a one-day shutdown last week. As Reuters adds, with Venezuela already brimming with shuttered stores and factories, amid a blistering four-year recession, the effectiveness of any strike can be hard to gauge. Many Venezuelans live hand-to-mouth and say they must keep working.
In Barinas, home state of former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, only about a third of businesses were closed according to a Reuters witness, as opposed to the opposition's formal estimate of 90 percent participation nationally.
"I am opposed to the government and I agree we must do everything we can to get out of this mess, but I depend on my work. If I don't work, my family does not eat," said Ramon Alvarez, a 45-year-old barber at his shop in Barinas.
There has been widespread international condemnation of Maduro's Constituent Assembly plan, which however have achieved nothing so far. The United States on Wednesday announced sanctions against 13 current and former officials for corruption, undermining democracy, and participating in repression.
Adding to Venezuela's troubles, and international isolation, Colombian airline Avianca suddenly stopped operations in the country on Thursday due to "operational and security limitations". US airline Delta is also expected to suspend services from September. The company declined to comment on the move.