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Crisis in Venezuela has reached “tipping point,” warns opposition

Former Spanish prime minister flies to Caracas as part of mediation mission

Opposition leaders Héctor Capriles y Jesús Torrealba.
Opposition leaders Héctor Capriles y Jesús Torrealba. EFE

Venezuela has entered a new stage of political confrontation. Following the government of President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to indefinitely extend the state of emergency and its continued refusal to allow for a recall referendum on his mandate, the opposition says it is determined to keep up pressure, within the law. “The crisis has reached tipping point,” said Jesús Torrealba, the secretary general of the opposition MUD grouping on Monday.

“Either we democratically build an alternative to rescue the country or the government will be forced into an outcome that will see bloodshed. We don’t want violence, but Maduro is using the law of the jungle,” he added.

Responding to the crisis, Spanish former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has joined Leonel Fernández and Martín Torrijos, the former presidents of the Dominican Republic and Panama, and has traveled to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas in a bid to mediate between the government and the opposition.

The three say they intend to meet with representatives from both sides separately, although neither the government nor the opposition have commented on the initiative. They are part of a so-called Truth Commission set up by Maduro as a counterproposal to an amnesty approved by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, but subsequently overruled by the Supreme Court in April. The Commission’s job is to investigate the demonstrations that took place in Venezuela in 2014 as a result of which several opposition leaders, among them Leopoldo López.

Under Venezuela’s Constitution, presidents can be removed from office by means of a referendum once they have served half their term

Zapatero’s visit follows Spain’s decision to recall its ambassador to Venezuela on April 8 in protest at an attack by Maduro on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whom he called a “racist, corrupt rubbish and corrupt colonialist” after he met with opposition leaders and questioned the country’s democracy.

The opposition says that the only way out of the crisis is through a change of government, and proposes reducing the presidential term from six to four years, as well as requiring Maduro to stand down and for a recall referendum to formally depose him.

Venezuela’s opposition has already gathered more than 1.1 million signatures for a petition for a recall referendum on the president.

Under Venezuela’s Constitution, presidents can be removed from office by means of a referendum once they have served half their term. At this stage, 1% of those on the electoral roll, or 197,978 registered voters, must sign the petition to start the process.

The next stage requires 20% of voters, almost four million people, to sign a second petition in order to trigger the referendum. For the referendum to be successful, an equal or greater number of voters than those who elected Maduro would have to cast their vote in favor of the recall. Maduro won the 2013 election with 7.6 million votes.

Torrealba highlighted growing dissent within the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) government, founded by deceased former president Hugo Chávez about holding a referendum: “The Chavistas have tried to delay the referendum because if it doesn’t take place before January 10, 2017, the vice president would become head of state until 2019. But now Maduro has realized that he has enemies within his own party that want to remove him and they now want a referendum.

On Sunday, vice president Aristóbulo Istúriz ruled out any question of a referendum. Before that, other key figures in the ruling party had already made clear their opposition to a referendum as a way of removing Maduro from office. Torrealba says the change in policy is part of a plan for the ruling party to hold on to power. “We are collecting signatures because we want elections, while the government is blocking every democratic option and is encouraging violence by decreeing a state of emergency that is against the law. Maduro is afraid of elections because he knows the people do not support him.”

Maduro extended the state of emergency on Friday in a bid to prevent street protests. But the opposition says it is determined to keep up the pressure for a referendum this year. “The march we have called for this Wednesday will go ahead,” he said.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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