CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela braced for protests Saturday, May 14, after President Nicolas Maduro declared a state of emergency to combat the "foreign aggression" he blamed for an economic crisis that has pushed the country to the brink of collapse.
The opposition called on protesters to flood an avenue in western Caracas to pressure the authorities to allow a referendum to remove the Socialist leader from power, in line with the constitution.
Maduro's camp called a rival demonstration in the center of the capital, where he was to announce new measures to address a crippling recession that has led to food shortages, soaring prices, riots, looting and vigilante justice.
The economic crisis, together with an electricity shortage, has already forced the government to decree daily power cuts across most of the country, close schools on Fridays, and reduce the workweek to two days for government employees.
The embattled president, who declared a state of "economic emergency" in January, expanded it Friday to a full-blown state of emergency to fight what he called "threats from abroad."
In an address to the nation, Maduro said the measures, initially decreed for three months, will likely be extended through 2017.
He did not specify if they will limit civil rights. The original economic decree authorized the government to seize private business assets to guarantee the supply of basic goods.
The new decree, he said, is "a fuller, more comprehensive protection for our people," which "guarantees peace, guarantees stability, that will allow us... to recover the country's productive capacity."
Maduro regularly blames US and local business interests for what his administration calls an "economic war" on oil-dependent Venezuela, whose economy has sunk in tandem with global crude prices.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but its economy contracted 5.7 percent last year and its official inflation rate topped 180 percent.
Washington has had a rocky relationship with Caracas since Maduro's late predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, came to power in 1999, and the two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Despite the bad blood, the United States is Venezuela's main trading partner and biggest oil customer.
Senior US intelligence officials believe Maduro's government could be overthrown in a popular uprising this year, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
"You can hear the ice cracking," an intelligence official said. "You know there's a crisis coming."
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said US policymakers' main concern is that the country does not collapse. They have been especially disappointed by the undisciplined, divided opposition, they said.
With Maduro's disapproval rating at 68 percent, the opposition won control of the legislature in elections last December.
But their coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), has struggled to overcome internal divisions and develop a cohesive strategy to oust Maduro.
'Worst act of corruption'
The opposition has submitted a petition with 1.8 million signatures calling for a recall referendum, which the National Electoral Board (CNE) was supposed to verify within 5 days.
But 12 days have now lapsed and opposition leaders say authorities are not letting them proceed to the next stage of the process, in which they must collect another four million signatures.
The opposition is racing to hold the referendum before the end of the year, when a successful recall vote would trigger new elections. After January 10, Maduro would simply be replaced by his vice president, according to the constitution.
Just days ago, riot police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching to the CNE's headquarters.
The opposition says Maduro controls the CNE and the Supreme Court, which has blocked MUD's efforts to leverage its legislative power against the president.
Opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa said the state of emergency is aimed at "destabilizing the country to prevent the recall vote."
Maduro announced the decree hours after opposition leaders met with Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS).
It would be "the worst act of political corruption," if a recall vote is not held this year, said Almagro, speaking at a forum in Miami. – Valentina Oropeza, Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com