A 48-hour general strike in Venezuela ended on Friday morning without the massive protests that many had been anticipating—but the chaos of those 48 hours left ten more Venezuelans dead. Although only a spattering of protests materialized in the afternoon, many young demonstrators told The Daily Beast that they were preparing for large clashes with government authorities in the evening.
The death toll for protesters in the country now stands at 112 since April, with thousands more injured and detained.
Opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called off the protests on Friday after Interior Minister Néstor Reverol issued a decree that anyone seen organizing and protesting would be arrested on sight, and given harsh jail sentences of between five to ten years. The government also ordered liquor stores to ban sales through the weekend, as well as a ban on fireworks. In response, organizers called for a continued blockade of the streets, which rendered certain parts of the city unusable to cars by the early afternoon.
The protests were expected to be a sort of last stand for democracy by the opposition before Maduro’s controversial vote for a constituent assembly on July 30. The constituent assembly vote will allow voters to choose from a list of 6,000 pre-selected candidates to to represent them in a new body which usurps the power of the National Assembly, the country’s highest legislative body.
Protesters on the streets of Caracas laughed off the candidate's claims of being able to deliver full-time jobs and free food if elected in Sunday’s vote, and instead spoke of the possibility of civil conflict. One pro-Maduro Venezuelan told The Daily Beast, however, that he thinks the opposition and protesters are solely to blame for the violence, and dismissed the notion of civil conflict, but added that if the Maduro administration does call on loyalists to take to the streets against their fellow countrymen, they will without hesitation.
For many, the constituent assembly is seen as an effort by Maduro to consolidate all power, rewrite the country's constitution, and dissolve state institutions. After issuing sanctions against 13 members of Maduro’s government, the U.S. has threatened further action against the Venezuelan government if it plans to go ahead with the vote.
The vote, if indeed it does go ahead, could cause the streets of Caracas to erupt in an unprecedented wave of violence. But at this moment, no one knows if it will indeed go ahead, or if it will be called off at the last possible second, as were the planned actions on Friday. The atmosphere in Caracas is tense, however, with many believing that the ensuing chaos could further destabilize the already fragile country.
In light of the uncertainty, the U.S. embassy issued an order for the families of all embassy staff to evacuate the country. Additionally, they are allowing embassy staffers the option of leaving the country voluntarily now before things get totally out of control.
Avianca Airlines, a Colombian airline which has maintained continuous service from Caracas for the past 60 years, also terminated all flights from Venezuela effective immediately on Thursday. The airliner had previously announced that it would stop service in mid-August, but quickly pushed up the withdrawal. Avianca passengers were left in the dark as the airlines phone lines quickly jammed.
By Friday, alternative flights from Caracas to Bogotá were selling for more than $2,500 one-way, a massive jump from the regular $200-$300 price. Following the decision, Venezuela seemed to close its airspace to Avianca, as no airliners were seen flying over the country on FlightRadar, a popular flight tracking site.
Following Avianca’s lead, Delta Airlines also suspended all operations in the country.
Further exacerbating the chaos on the ground, the country’s currency, the Bolívar, hit more than 10,000-to-1 U.S. dollar on the black market in the continuing run of hyperinflation plaguing the country. The steep descent in the currency’s value has left basic goods out of reach for many Venezuelans.
While the government attempts to provide relief in the form of food and products for some struggling citizens, many are living in a nightmare. The country recently had to issue new 10,000 Bolívar notes to keep pace with the inflation, but some black market dealers have resorted to weighing the currency instead of counting it because of the tremendous amount of Bolívar notes required for any exchange.
The nervousness leading into Sunday’s vote was palpable with some opposition activists. Employees at a human rights NGO in Caracas told The Daily Beast that they believe a victory for Maduro in the constituent assembly is now a certainty, and several spoke of the need for formulating plans to escape the country. They feel that with a win in the constituent assembly, the government will have the power and pseudo-legitimacy to crack down on anyone it pleases.