Death toll rises as Venezuela strike enters second day

Wang Xiang
Venezuela's opposition kicked off a second day of a general strike Thursday after a day of street protests left three people dead.
Wang Xiang

Venezuela's opposition kicked off a second day of a general strike Thursday after a day of street protests left three people dead, in an intensifying showdown over President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the nation's constitution.

Prosecutors said a 30-year-old man was killed Wednesday in the western province of Merida, and a 14-year-old boy was killed in Caracas' Petare neighborhood, a sprawling slum in the eastern end of the city.?

On Thursday they confirmed a 23-year-old man had died the previous day in Merida.

With the approach of controversial elections on Sunday to pick a 545-seat Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, the opposition and the Maduro government skirmished in the streets.

Protesters and government forces faced off late into the night Wednesday, with rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and homemade bombs arcing through the air.

Barricades made from debris littered eastern Caracas, dotted with signs that read "No more dictatorships!"

Maduro says a new constitution is the only way to bring peace, but the opposition calls the move a power grab by the embattled leftist government.

"What happens if they impose the Constituent Assembly? The crisis will worsen. Where does Maduro want to take the country? To a social explosion?" said Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader.

The latest deaths raised to 106 the number of people killed since April 1.

In Washington, the US Treasury unveiled a list of 13 current and former officials, including the interior minister, senior military brass, the president of the electoral council, and the finance chief of state oil company PDVSA, whose US assets would be frozen.

Maduro called the US punishment "illegal, insolent and unprecedented."

"Who do these imperialists in the United States think they are? The government of the world?" he said.

But with crippling shortages of basic goods and soaring inflation, protest organizers claimed 92 percent of businesses and workers support the walkout.

- Maduro defiant -Maduro accuses Washington of fomenting unrest against him, aided by the conservative opposition.

The Venezuelan military has declared its loyalty to him.

But some 70 percent of Venezuelans ?oppose the Constituent Assembly, according to polling firm Datanalisis.

The hardening political struggle has deepened fears that months of street violence could worsen.

The opposition has planned another major demonstration in Caracas on Friday.

Thousands of Venezuelans have fled into neighboring Colombia this week, while many of those who stayed behind believe ousting Maduro is their only hope.

Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez made a direct appeal to the military Wednesday to withdraw its support from Maduro's plan, which he called a "constitutional fraud" aimed at eliminating democratic rule.

- Economic crisis -In announcing the US sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said America was "standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy."

He warned that anybody elected to the Constituent Assembly could also face US sanctions.

Thirteen countries in the 35-member Organization of American States, a regional political bloc, urged Maduro to suspend Sunday's election, saying it amounted to a "dismantling of democratic institutionality."

Venezuela's opposition, bolstered by an unofficial vote on July 16 that saw a third of the electorate reject Maduro's plan, has called for a boycott of the vote.

At the same time, Maduro's administration is being squeezed by the long-running economic crisis.

The oil export-dependent economy will shrink 12 percent this year, after a contraction of 18 percent last year, the International Monetary Fund said.

Inflation is projected to top 720 percent.

Venezuela's currency reserves have dwindled to under $10 billion as the government keeps up debt repayments at the expense of imports to stave off a crippling default.

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