CARACAS, Venezuela—A call from opposition leaders for a 48 hour national strike to protest the ruling government’s plan to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution began on Wednesday and continued to build momentum Thursday in the buildup to what promises to be a truly massive day of demonstrations on Friday.
Protesters took to the streets of the city, blockading entire neighborhoods in the country’s capital using makeshift wire cordons and setting fire to garbage, and throwing up roadblocks. Stationed at each were groups of balaclava-clad protesters, some just barely teeangers.
Yet despite the intimidating scenes, many Venezuelans treated the obstructions as a mere nuisance while they went about their daily routines. Groups of joggers took to the empty highways and made their way through the smokey blockades. In Altamira Square, an affluent section of downtown Caracas, parents walked with their kids while others casually strolled about. In a city which is often called the most violent on earth because of the fmurder and kidnapping rates, the protests might just be another thing to deal with.
Few businesses remained open during the strike, however, apart from fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Wendy’s, and TGI Fridays. The diners within could look out to see groups of masked protesters armed with molotov cocktails.
In the centrer of Altamira, a makeshift shrine has been erected to 17 year old protester Neomar Lander, who was killed in June during Maduro’s crackdown. The carpet vest he was wearing to protect from rubber bullets and other projectiles reads, “I’m a liberator,” alluding to the title of Venezuela’s founding father Simón Bolívar, El Libertador.
Lander’s death caused a national uproar, and gave the opposition and protesters more fuel for their cause. Perhaps partially for this reason, there seems to be some growing discontent amongst Venezuelan soldiers. Reuters recently reported that 123 have been arrested since the protests began.
These intense protests started in the spring after the country’s supreme court, stacked with loyalists of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, dissolved the National Assembly. The opposition had managed to win power in the country’s top legislative body for the first time in 16 years after forming a coalition against Maduro’s United Socialist Party.
Their win was supposed to mark the potential for big change in Venezuela, as many expected the new coalition to rewrite the socialist constitution of 1999, enacted by then-President Hugo Chavez.
But Maduro pushed through judicial appointments just before the opposition took power in the National Assembly, and those insured that any power the opposition tried to wield could be tempered by the supreme court, loyal to Maduro.
When Maduro finally decided to strip the National Assembly of its powers altogether, protesters took to the streets to fight. Many were calling it their last stand against an inevitable dictatorship. And even when the decision was reversed, the protests went on.
Now in Caracas, signs of the frustration and anger with Maduro are everywhere. “Fuck dictatorship” graffiti adorns walls across the city, and countless images of Maduro’s face have been defaced.
The city is at a virtual standstill as people prepare for the mass protests at the end of the week.
“On Friday, we’re facing the most important demonstration of these three months of protesting,” says Melanio Escobar, a 30-year-old independent journalist, one of the few left in the country. The heavily tattooed Escobar doesn’t just consider himself a journalist anymore, but also an activist in the fight against the regime that rules his country.
The protests on the 28th are being called “The Taking of Caracas” and opposition leaders are asking people from across the country to come to the capital to demonstrate their rejection of the Maduro regime.
“It’s very important because it’s only two days before the election, the illegal election, that Maduro is trying to put forward to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution,” says Escobar. “Civil society, journalists, opposition, everyone expects it to be huge.”
The Constituent Assembly election will choose 545 members to rival the opposition-held National Assembly. The outcome of the vote is expected to be a foregone conclusion, with victory going to Maduro’s administration, which can stack the constituent assembly with regime loyalists and rewrite a constitution more suitable to them.
However, in a country where the vast majority are against Maduro, the opposition is not going down lightly. In mid July, it held a vote of its own, in which over 7 million of Venezuela’s 32 million people voted. According to opposition statistics, 98 percent chose to reject the proposed new assembly.
Maduro has dismissed the demonstrations as attempts at a coup against his administration and blames the United States for the chaos in his country.
The U.S on Wednesday announced new sanctions against 13 top Venezuelan officials, thereby freezing their U.S. assets. American President Donald Trump claimed he’d pursue "strong and swift economic actions" if the election on the 30th takes place. Thus far, there are zero signs that it won’t.
In a sign of worsening times, Avianca Airlines, the Colombian carrier, announced that it would halt its twice daily service between Bogotá and Caracas, citing security concerns. The route had been in continuous service for 60 years.