CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government is set to press ahead with a vote to elect a constituent assembly on July 30, an official said on Sunday, prompting the opposition to blast the body as a sham designed to keep embattled President Nicolas Maduro in power.
Adding to tensions in two months of sustained anti-government unrest, a young man who was set on fire last month during a protest died on Sunday.
Beset by near-daily street protests, Maduro in May announced a plan for a “constituent assembly” with powers to rewrite the constitution, in what he says is a bid to bring peace back to the oil-rich nation.
But opponents say Maduro, helped by a compliant Supreme Court and National Electoral Council, is in fact seeking to dodge national elections and ignored protester demands for an end to crushing food and medicine shortages.
“We’re going to propose to the National Electoral Council (CNE) for its approval ... the date of July 30,” the head of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, said in a speech transmitted on state television on Sunday.
Lucena celebrated what she said was a surprisingly high number of candidates and high female representation.
There will not be a general election for the assembly, but rather a complex set of local and group-based votes the opposition says favor the ruling Socialist Party. Candidates include current Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and late leader Hugo Chavez’s brother Adan, the president said during his hours-long Sunday TV show.
The opposition has vowed to boycott the constituent assembly, and is instead calling for early presidential elections and respect for the existing congress, which has been led by Maduro critics since early 2016. It called for a “sit-in” along Venezuela’s main roads on Monday to protest the decision.
“If Tibisay pushes a date, we push street protests,” said opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, announcing Monday’s demonstration. “This (June 5), 12 hours of resistance! No to the fraud that is this constituent assembly!”
Orlando Figuera, 22, died on Sunday after having been set ablaze during a protest in affluent east Caracas last month, the state prosecutor’s office said in a statement, pushing the total deaths in unrest since early April to at least 65.
The government says Figuera was targeted for being “Chavista,” or a supporter of late leftist Hugo Chavez, because he had dark skin and looked poor.
But a Reuters witness on site said a group of mostly hooded protesters pursued Figuera, calling him a thief, after he was accused of trying to rob a woman.
Lynchings and mob violence have become more common in violent Venezuela, with many feeling they have to take justice into their own hands due to widespread impunity and crime.
The government, however, says Figuera’s death is more evidence that a thuggish opposition is seeking to stoke hate to be able to stage a coup and install a U.S.-backed government.
“Stop it already, for the love of God!” Maduro said in his TV program, which he dedicated in large part to Figuera. “How far will they go?”
The opposition, in turn, says Maduro is manipulating the case and failing to address what they say is widespread repression by heavy-handed security forces. Over 3,000 people have been arrested since the start of protests, with around a third still behind bars, according to rights group Penal Forum.
Some 51 opposition protesters carrying weapons were arrested on Saturday while in a bus going from the opposition-run Chacao municipality to the west of Caracas where they were planning violence, Maduro said.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Mary Milliken