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Wednesday November 22nd, 2017 6:16AM

Venezuela opposition calls for escalation of street protests

By The Associated Press
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leaders called Monday for escalated street protests after more than 7 million people rejected a government plan to rewrite the constitution and consolidate power over the country, which has been stricken by shortages and inflation and riven by more than 100 days of clashes between protesters and police.

The opposition said 7,186,170 Venezuelans participated in a symbolic referendum rejecting President Nicolas Maduro's plans for the July 30 election of an assembly that would remake the country's political system. Maduro's allies have called on the assembly to impose executive branch authority over the few remaining institutions outside the control of Venezuela's socialist ruling party.

A coalition of some 20 opposition parties met Monday to call for a "zero hour" campaign of civil disobedience in the two weeks leading to the government vote. More than three months of opposition protests have left at least 93 people dead and 1,500 wounded. More than 500 protesters and government opponents have been jailed.

"Right now we have to escalate and deepen this street movement," National Assembly President Julio Borges told local radio station Exitos ahead of the opposition announcement, which was delayed more than two hours into the early afternoon as the opposition discussed its next steps behind closed doors.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos planned to discuss the crisis during a visit with President Raul Castro of Cuba, Venezuela's closest regional ally, Colombia's foreign minister said from Havana.

"It would be hard for two presidents to meet these days without discussing Venezuela, because of its importance and the concern the whole continent has about Venezuela," Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said. "The situation in Venezuela will be part of the conversation with President Castro, seeing how we can come to a solution, that dialogue is re-established, that there are paths to a deal."

Colombia has dealt with rising tensions and a growing number of people crossing the border from Venezuela as the crisis in the oil-rich country has deepened.

David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela, said Sunday's result would likely rally the international community even more strongly against the July 30 vote.

"Overall, this vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned," Smilde said. "I think it's going to embolden the international community to reject it."

Sunday's opposition vote was a strong but not overwhelming showing that fell short of the opposition's 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought Maduro to power in 2013. Opposition leaders said that was because they were able to set up only 2,000 polling places in a symbolic exercise the government labeled as illegitimate.

Still, some supporters said they were disappointed.

"I thought it was going to be more," said Mariela Arana, a 56-year-old school counselor. "But these 7 million people spoke and it was plenty."

The vote on Sunday was marred by violence when a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in a church in western Caracas.

The opposition released only turnout numbers Sunday night, not tallies of responses, although virtually all who voted were believed to have answered "yes" to the central rejection of the constitutional rewrite.

In smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters went to polling stations in a rehearsal for the July 30 vote.

Maduro and the military dominate most state institutions but the opposition controls the congress and holds three of 23 governorships. The country's chief prosecutor has recently broken with the ruling party.

Opponents of Venezuela's government blame it for turning one of the region's most prosperous countries into an economic basket case with a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and widespread shortages. The government blames the crisis on an economic war waged by its opponents and outside backers.

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Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fisanchezn

Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein

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