Few heed call for mass protest in Venezuela's capital

Few heed call for mass protest in Venezuela's capital

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Few demonstrators heeded opposition calls for a mass protest Friday in Venezuela's capital against President Nicolas Maduro's divisive push to rewrite the constitution by a constituent assembly to be elected Sunday.

Streets in Caracas were largely devoid of protests a day after Interior Minister Nestor Reverol announced that authorities were prohibiting any demonstrations from taking place through Tuesday.

Opposition leaders had urged Venezuelans to demonstrate anyway in a protest they billed as the "Taking of Caracas," hoping for a dramatic culmination of three days of protests that started with a 48-hour nationwide general strike. But the hundreds of thousands who have sometimes taken to the streets during nearly four months of anti-government protests were largely absent.

"Here we are in the streets, just like the first day," opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares said, urging people to reject Reverol's demonstration ban. "Let's not be victims of fear."

There were isolated clashes between National Guard troops and small groups of young demonstrators who call themselves "The Resistance." A few protest barricades went up in opposition-friendly eastern Caracas, but the city was relatively calms two days before Sunday's constituent assembly election.

Maduro has deployed the military and police to clear blockades and protect a vote that he says is meant to end the power struggle with the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which he blames for Venezuela's spiraling political, economic and social crisis. The opposition is boycotting the vote, saying the election rules have been rigged to favor the ruling socialist party and will only serve to tighten Maduro's grip on power.

International pressure to cancel the vote intensified Friday, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterating in a telephone call with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez that the United States would respond with "strong and swift economic actions" if the election proceeds.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santo said he would not recognize the constituent assembly, given that it has "illegitimate origins." His finance minister also told a local radio station the neighboring nation would sanction the same 13 former and current Venezuelan officials cited by the U.S. on Wednesday.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of Maduro's most vocal opponents, said in a meeting with two other U.S. legislators that he expects further sanctions if the assembly vote proceeds.

Maduro appeared unconcerned by the mounting international outcry, instead paying homage Friday to the late President Hugo Chavez on what would have been his predecessor's 63rd birthday, telling supporters that with the constitution rewrite, "Chavez is more alive than ever."

"What would Chavez do July 30th?" he asked. "Would he call on us to sabotage the constituent assembly?"

"No!" the crowd shouted back.

Delegates elected to the constituent assembly will take on the task of rewriting the 1999 constitution, which was crafted by Chavez to install a socialist administration. That constitution is considered one of his principal legacies, and the move to rewrite it has drawn rebuke even from some longtime government loyalists and Chavez supporters.

Residents in Caracas lined up for hours at grocery stores and banks to stockpile food and cash before what many expected to be a chaotic weekend.

The election has added fuel to near-daily protests that began in early April after the government-packed Supreme Court ruled to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its last powers. The decision was quickly reversed but it sparked a protest movement demanding a new presidential election.

Deaths in the anti-government demonstrations and upheaval climbed to at least 113 on Friday. That number included a police officer slain in the town of Ejido in the western state of Merida, which has been the scene of violent clashes in recent days.

Meanwhile, Alfredo Romero, director of Foro Penal, a lawyers' group, said that Wuilly Arteaga, a young violinist who has become a symbol of anti-government protest in Venezuela, had been detained while performing.

"They took his violin and hit him with it," Romero said.

Air service to Venezuela continued to dwindle. Avianca was offering full refunds to the estimated 13,000 passengers who had booked a flight on the now-suspended service. Delta, one of the last airlines still serving Venezuela, said on Twitter that it could not guarantee service after September. The airline declined further comment.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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