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Venezuela protests show no signs of letting up

May 4, 2017

President Maduro has set up an assembly to write a new constitution in a move critics called a ploy to remain in power. Concerns for a key political prisoner have added to tension in Venezuela's ongoing street protests.

Venezuela Anti-Regierungsproteste in Caracas - Studentin
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Schemidt

Together with her supporters and family, Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, stood in front of the hilltop Ramo Verde jail on Thursday and demanded to see her husband.

Luis Almagro, head of the regional Organization of American States (OAS,) wrote via Twitter: "The Venezuela government has refused to confirm the health of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. Family and lawyers have not seen him in more than a month."

"I demand to visit Leopoldo Lopez based on the commitments that Venezuela has with the Inter-American System of Human Rights," Almagro wrote. Lopez, a former mayor, was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail in 2015 following the last major anti-government protests.

The government had released a video of Lopez on Wednesday denying the claims that he had died in prison.

But "the dictatorship's video is FALSE," Tintori said via Twitter on Thursday. "The only proof of life that we will accept is to see Leopoldo."

Protest against 'constituent assembly'

Students launched more street protests on Thursday to protest President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the "anti-capitalist" constitution, drawn up by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, soon after he launched a socialist revolution in 1999.

Hugo Chavez bei Militärparade
Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013 at his 2007 inaugurationImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Rey

Chavez's changes, encapsulated in his little "Blue Book," extended presidential terms, consolidated the two houses of congress into a single body, expanded the branches of power from three to five, and let Chavez call immediate across-the-board elections. After 13 years in power, Chavez named Maduro as his successor, shortly before he died of  cancer in 2013.

Maduro has not given details of the changes he plans for the constitution as he began the procedures at the electoral council on Wednesday to elect a "constituent assembly" to draw up a new constitution "so that our people .... can decide the destiny of our homeland."

The president said the assembly would not include political parties with seats in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, but representatives of social groups.

The president's critics and opponents see the plan as a maneuver to delay elections so he can remain in power. "Since the government cannot win elections, it wants to dismantle the system for holding them,"  opposition leader Henrique Capriles told the AFP news agency.

At least 34 people have died and hundreds more have been injured since protests intensified in early April against Maduro.

Key role for the military

There have been three attempted military coups since 1992, and in 2014 clashes during anti-government protests killed 43 people.

Maduro still retains the backing of the country's powerful military, which also plays a significant role in the country's economy.

But food shortages, lack of medical and basic supplies and soaring prices, with 720 percent inflation expected this year, have caused hardship and dissent throughout the country.

The economic collapse has happened despite Venezuela having probably the largest oil reserves in the world.

jm/sms (Reuters, AP, EFE)