Venezuela enters critical stage in political crisis

Opponents to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro take part in a demonstration in Caracas on May 14, 2016 (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)
Venezuela braced Monday for more upheaval as President Nicolas Maduro prepared to unveil the scope of a new emergency decree and the opposition readied protests against what it calls a bid to cling to power.
The leftist leader has so far given few details on the state of emergency he declared Friday, beyond vowing to seize factories he claims have been paralyzed by the "bourgeoisie" in order to exacerbate the shortages destabilizing the country.
Legal experts have said the decree could impose limits on protests, authorize preventive arrests and allow warrantless police raids.
The opposition says it is an attempt to quash efforts to call a referendum on removing the deeply unpopular president from office.
"This government is acting in an authoritarian manner to keep itself in power," opposition lawmaker Tomas Guanipa told a press conference.
Venezuela, the country with the world\’s largest oil reserves, appears to be spinning toward catastrophe as its economy collapses along with global crude prices.
Supermarket and pharmacy shelves have gone increasingly bare in recent months as the oil-dependent economy has imploded, forcing Venezuelans to stand in line for hours to buy groceries.
An electricity crisis and drought have added to the turmoil, forcing Maduro\’s government to decree daily power cuts across most of the country, close schools on Fridays and cut the work week of government employees to two days in a bid to save power.
The opposition will put the state of emergency to the test Wednesday, when they plan to hold nationwide marches to the offices of the National Electoral Board demanding it allow a recall referendum, in line with the constitution.
Police and soldiers used tear gas to break up similar protests last week.
Maduro has ordered military exercises for Saturday to prepare for what he calls the threat of an armed intervention backed by the United States at the behest of the "fascist Venezuelan right."
Washington, which denies plotting against Maduro, voiced concern Monday at the worsening situation and urged the president to listen to his critics at home.
"The conditions for the Venezuelan population are terrible," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, describing recent reports of chaos as "breathtaking."
"Now is the time for leaders to listen to diverse Venezuelan voices and work together peacefully to truly find solutions."
Maduro, the hand-picked successor of the late Hugo Chavez, has presided over an economic unraveling since he took charge in 2013.
Three years of recession, inflation projected to rise to as much as 700 percent this year, shortages, crime, looting, and water and electricity rationing have all fueled public anger against the 53-year-old president.
Seven in 10 Venezuelans want a change in government, according to recent polls.
Maduro said the state of emergency would initially apply for three months, but that he would likely extend it through 2017.
The company seizures could notably affect the Polar group, Venezuela\’s biggest food and beverage company, which halted beer production on April 30, saying it had run out of barley.
The company is owned by billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza, whom Maduro has accused of conspiring against his government.
Venezuelan businesses say they are currently operating at less than 45 percent capacity because the government will not allow them to buy increasingly scarce dollars to pay their foreign suppliers.
The opposition won legislative elections in December, but its agenda in the National Assembly has been stymied by the Supreme Court, which it condemns as beholden to Maduro.
It is now seeking to organize a recall referendum, and says it has collected 1.8 million signatures to launch the process.
But the vote must be held by the end of the year to trigger new elections, and the opposition accuses the authorities of stalling.
After January 10 — four years into Maduro\’s six-year term — a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to his hand-picked vice president, Aristobulo Isturiz.
Isturiz said Sunday there would not even be a vote, alleging irregularities in collecting signatures.

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