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AP Explains: Unrest as Venezuelan constitution rewrite nears

CARACAS, Venezuela — As Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the troubled nation's constitution approaches, the opposition is vowing to intensify near-daily demonstrations to voice dissent. Nearly 7.2 million Venezuelans voted in a symbolic referendum Sunday rejecting Maduro's push for the July 30 election of a special assembly that could reshape the country's government and consolidate his power.

HOW DID VENEZUELA'S TURMOIL BEGIN?

The oil-rich nation was once one of Latin America's most prosperous, but it has been plunged into political and economic turmoil as petroleum prices plummet, nationalized farms and factories halt production and corruption runs rampant.

Venezuelans frustrated by food shortages, triple-digit inflation and a homicide rate that ranks among the highest in the world took to the streets in early April after a Supreme Court decision stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its remaining powers.

The decision was reversed amid international outcry but unleashed a wave of protests that has left more than 80 people dead and thousands more injured and detained.

WHAT DOES THE OPPOSITION WANT?

Protesters are demanding a new presidential election and want Maduro to lift his ban on humanitarian aid so that needed food and medical supplies can reach Venezuelans. They also want any and all political prisoners to be released.

The socialist leader has refused to accept foreign aid, denying that Venezuela is facing a crisis, and warned that allowing foreign humanitarian assistance could put the nation at risk of foreign military intervention.

Maduro has rejected calls fora new presidential election before the scheduled 2018 vote. Opposition members fear Maduro's constitutional assembly will reschedule or do away with a future presidential election entirely.

WHO SUPPORTS MADURO?

Polls indicate many Venezuelans support neither the opposition nor the socialist government installed by late President Hugo Chavez.

The opposition gained control of the National Assembly in the 2015 legislative election, but has continually been stymied by the government-stacked Supreme Court. The court nullified eight of the assembly's laws between January and October 2016, after making just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.

Leaders of most key institutions including the National Electoral Council have remained firmly behind Maduro.

One unexpected challenger who has emerged is Venezuela's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz. She rejected the contested March Supreme Court decision nullifying congress and has repeatedly denounced the constitutional assembly.

WILL THE MILITARY TAKE ACTION?

Venezuela's military has historically stepped in to end political disputes and the opposition has urged it to uphold the constitution and stop Maduro's rewrite from proceeding.

In late June, a rogue police pilot and budding action-movie star stole a helicopter and dropped grenades on the Supreme Court, calling for a rebellion against Maduro's government. But there is little to indicate a revolt is underway.

Chavez and Maduro spent years building a cozy relationship with military leaders, rewarding them with money and powerful government jobs. More recently, Maduro has promoted some officials accused of acting violently against opposition members.

WHAT WILL THE constitutional ASSEMBLY DO?

The assembly could dramatically reshape the government.

The current constitution, pushed through by Chavez in 1999, expanded the number of branches within the national government and consolidated the two houses of congress into a single body. It also helped him extend his five-year presidential term into a 13-year presidency.

It is unclear what changes Maduro plans to enact, but opposition members fear any branch of government that doesn't fall in line with Maduro will be left powerless. They fear that already-delayed regional elections, now set for December 2017, will be cancelled. Maduro's party is likely to lose that vote.

The opposition has refused to participate, arguing that the election is designed to guarantee a pro-government majority. They also see the special assembly as another means by which Maduro will further consolidate power.

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