Maduro Calls for New Venezuelan Constitution Amid Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro called for a popular assembly to write a new constitution, a fresh attempt to consolidate his hold on the nation and an escalation of a crisis that has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.

The opposition decried Monday’s move as an illegal power grab. They said that Venezuela, whose economy and society are frayed to the breaking point, was slipping further into authoritarian rule.

Maduro said he was relying on a provision in the current constitution that allows “the people of Venezuela” to transform their state and its charter. The meeting will consist “not of political parties and elites, but of workers and communes,” Maduro said before thousands of supporters who rallied in downtown Caracas. “I activate the assembly for the people to take power.”

He didn’t immediately give details about how the assembly would be convened, its duration or its members. Appearing on state television later in the evening, Maduro signed the formal convocation decree and said he had designated a commission for a “wide dialogue with all of Venezuela.”

The announcement came as tens of thousands of protesters marched through the capital and just a day after Pope Francis renewed his call for a negotiated solution to the crisis embroiling the South American country. Triple-digit inflation and widespread hunger after two decades of socialist rule have engendered protests and street battles, and dozens have been killed in clashes in the past month.

‘Toward the Cliff’

Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, warned over the weekend that a constitutional convention would allow a push by Maduro toward a “Cuban-style” regime and was an attempt to “fight fire with gasoline.” On Monday evening, he called on Venezuelans to bang pots and pans in protest and to block streets across the country Tuesday morning.

“This is a joke and a coup against the Venezuelan people,” Borges said. “But don’t think this is an action of a strong government or president. Nicolas Maduro is not going forward, but toward the cliff.”

Maduro on Monday accused the opposition of being unwilling to negotiate.

“They want peace, dialogue? Constituent assembly!” Maduro said, telling supporters that the time had come to defeat their opponents for good. “Today, it’s all clear to me.”

Opposition leaders have been incensed since Venezuela’s top court in March tried to rein in the nation’s congress, the only elected body that openly challenged Maduro. The decision was partly reversed after criticism that the country was tumbling into authoritarianism.

Maduro Calls for New Venezuelan Constitution Amid Protests

Attendees react during a vigil for Juan Pablo Pernalete, allegedly killed during a protest against Maduro, in Caracas

Photographer: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

On Monday, opposition Governor Henrique Capriles said in posts on his Twitter account that the opposition would alert democratic governments around the world about what he called a “constitutional fraud” and called for new street protests and civil disobedience.

Militant Hashtag

Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters rallied from 26 points across Caracas on a hot, rainy day. The effort was promoted on social media with the hashtag “the people rebel against the coup.”

Opposition leaders are seeking to maintain momentum that brought over a million supporters into the streets in marches last month.

‘Exhausting the People’

On Sunday, Pope Francis appealed at a Mass in Vatican City for an end to violence that he said is “exhausting the people.” Protests over the past month have resulted in a least 29 deaths. The papal statement came after a Vatican-sponsored dialogue last year failed. Many opposition leaders criticized the process, saying it merely bought the government time and extended the crisis.

They have their own demands: the designation of an impartial electoral board, early presidential elections, an immediate date for overdue regional elections, government authorization to accept humanitarian aid shipments of food and medicine, respect for the autonomy of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the release of all political prisoners and the disarmament of pro-government groups known as colectivos.

Maduro on Sunday said he was raising the country’s monthly minimum wage for the third time this year by 60 percent to around 200,000 bolivars as the country continues to face triple-digit inflation. At the black market exchange rate, that’s still less than $50 a month.

On Monday, Maduro said that all prices should be frozen as the country fights an “economic war” he blames on conspirators in Venezuela and abroad.