Fear And Fury In Venezuela, As Strike Protesting 'Dictatorship' Begins
Empty streets, makeshift barricades, burning tires, signs scrawled with "No to dictatorship": Protests continue on the streets of Venezuela as a 24-hour general strike takes hold, the latest development in an ongoing political and economic crisis.
Some citizens are trying to go to work despite the shutdown of public transportation; others are taking to blockaded streets in protest. There is widespread fear of more bloodshed after months of conflict and dozens of deaths.
The head of the Organization of American States says the government is "violently repressing demonstrations" and warns that there's no sign of an end to the crisis.
Venezuela's opposition called the strike to protest President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution and strengthen his party's power.
It's the first general strike since a months-long 2002 effort to oust Hugo Chávez, which failed, The Associated Press reports.
For more than two years, Venezuela has struggled with a massive economic collapse that has triggered acute food shortages, a lack of medical care and rampant inflation. NPR's Planet Money calls the disaster, caused by government decisions and triggered by a drop in oil prices, an "economic horror story."
A political crisis soon followed. Protesters called for the resignation of Maduro, who is now deeply unpopular. But instead of stepping down, Maduro accumulated more and more power.
Demonstrations have been held on a near-daily basis for months, ever since the country's supreme court attempted to dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature in April. Dozens of people have died in clashes between protesters and security forces.
As NPR has reported, Maduro now intends to call an assembly to rewrite Venezuela's 18-year-old Constitution. In a nonbinding referendum, 98 percent of voters rejected that plan — but Maduro is pushing forward anyway.
In response, the opposition called Thursday's general strike. Reuters reports from Caracas:
"From the Andes to the Amazon, many businesses shut as the majority-backed opposition staged a 24-hour shutdown from dawn in a civil disobedience campaign it is dubbing 'zero hour' to try to end nearly two decades of Socialist Party rule
" 'We must all do our best to get rid of this tyrant,' said Miguel Lopez, 17, holding a homemade shield emblazoned with 'No To Dictatorship!' as he manned a roadblock on a Caracas thoroughfare that was devoid of traffic.
"Many private transport groups heeded the strike call, while students, neighbors and activists hauled rubbish and furniture into streets to form barriers.
"In some places, however, such as the poor Catia and January 23rd neighborhoods of Caracas, streets and shops were still buzzing.
"In scattered clashes, security forces fired tear gas at protesters manning barricades. Youths shot fireworks."
The head of the OAS warns of "the deterioration of democracy" in Venezuela and says that "by militarizing the response to the demonstrations, the government has become a dictatorship."
"The violence is getting worse and the actions by the security apparatus are escalating," OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro wrote on Wednesday. "The fear that is on everyone's mind, but we are too afraid to speak out loud, is our fear that this will escalate into a bloodbath."
The Trump administration, meanwhile, says it is considering a wide range of possible sanctions against Venezuela, including restrictions on oil imports from that country. Trump issued a statement on Monday warning of "strong and swift economic actions" if the Maduro regime follows through with its plans to rewrite the constitution.
Senior administration officials declined to detail those economic actions but say all options are on the table. That could include sanctions against Venezuelan officials but also restrictions on the country's vital oil industry.
Venezuela is one of the largest foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S., accounting for nearly 10 percent of total imports. The Trump administration says it is mindful of the impact that restricting those imports could have on U.S. oil refineries and retail gas prices but adds that it is prepared to make tough decisions if forced to.
"The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles," Trump said in his statement. "The Venezuelan people again made clear that they stand for democracy, freedom, and rule of law. Yet their strong and courageous actions continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator."
NPR's Scott Horsley contributed to this report.