Venezuela plan to rewrite constitution branded a coup by former regional allies

Jonathan Watts, Latin America correspondent and Virginia López in Caracas
Venezuelan national guards take cover with their shields during a protest by opposition supporters against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Venezuela’s former regional allies, Brazil and Argentina, have reacted with dismay to President Nicholás Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution, as protesters in Caracas once again barricaded streets and clashed with riot police.

Argentina’s foreign minister, Susanna Malcorra, said on Tuesday that the move “poured petrol on the fire” of unrest, which has claimed 29 lives over the past month, including victims on both sides of the political divide as well as bystanders.

Maduro – who is struggling to overcome low approval ratings, bloody demonstrations, a deteriorating economy, runaway crime and riots over food shortages – announced on Monday night a constituent assembly that will revise the nation’s democratic system.

“It seems that he is doubling down, and not realizing that those who die in the street – whatever colour they wear – are Venezuelans,” said Malcorra.

Brazil’s top diplomat described the proposal for a constituent assembly as a coup d’état. “It is another break with democracy, violating the country’s constitution,” said foreign minister Aloysio Nunes in a Facebook post. Nunes said Brazil could not intervene, but had condemned Maduro’s “escalation of authoritarianism”.

Venezuela is likely to shrug off the accusations, having grown accustomed to criticism from the two countries which have seen a switch of government from left to right in recent years. In Brazil’s case, that shift came about after the impeachment of president Dilma Roussef – a move which Maduro described as a coup.

Maduro – who is struggling to overcome low approval ratings, bloody demonstrations, a deteriorating economy, runaway crime and riots over food shortages –

said on Monday that the new constitution was necessary to overcome the gridlock paralysing the country so that the nation’s considerable oil wealth could be channelled to the people more effectively.

But the country’s opposition accuse him of a cynical ploy to circumvent the national assembly – which they won control of by a large majority at the last nationwide polls in 2015 – and to delay regional and presidential elections that polling suggests the governing party is likely to lose by a wide margin.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s presidential candidate in the last two polls, said the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela was tearing up the rulebook drawn up by its deceased figurehead Hugo Chávez.

“Those who call themselves the fathers of this constitution now want to kill it,” he said. “The constituent assembly that Maduro has called doesn’t appear in our constitution. All Maduro wants to do with this is avoid an electoral process.”

Protesters returned to the streets on Tuesday morning, throwing up barricades of tyres, branches and burning rubbish.

“We don’t believe in Maduro’s fake peace, what he’s done is add more fuel to the fire,” Jesús Gutiérrez, 64, told Reuters at a protest in central Caracas. “The people have to react, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

A woman rests on a tyre at a roadblock set up by residents outside her home in El Hatillo, near Caracas, on Tuesday. Photograph: Fernando Llano/AP

Venezuela’s constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who described the document as the best in the world and promised it would last for centuries.

Opposition leaders have repeated concerns that Venezuela is slipping towards a dictatorship, arguing that the new body would be packed with cronies of the president and his supporters.

On Wednesday, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (known by its Spanish initials MUD), will announce plans for another massive protest, raising fears of further violence.

The minister of defence, Néstor Reveroll, banned the use of firearms for six months, “to guarantee security, peace and internal order”, though just last month the government was handing out weapons to civil militias in neighbourhoods that are traditionally pro-government.

How the new constitutional assembly will be selected remains unclear. In announcing the presidential decree, Maduro suggested some members would be elected, while others might be chosen from social organisations.

“I am no Mussolini,” he insisted in a televised address. “This will be a citizens’ assembly made up of workers … The day has come brothers. Don’t fail me now. Don’t fail Chávez and don’t fail your motherland.”

The new body will be headed by Elías Jaua, the education minister.

In an interview on state TV, he said the election calendar would be honoured although he blamed the protests for creating an environment that made it difficult to conduct polls. To restore order, he said the system had to change.

“The country needs a state and a judicial system that allows the Venezuelan family to leave their homes, in a day like this where [the opposition] has called for streets to be closed, and take their children to school, or go to work,” he said.

Given inflation heading towards 700%, an economy that has contracted 18% and rising joblessness and poverty, however, many Venezuelans would argue that their most pressing current need is not a new constitution.