Venezuela is bracing for an escalation of the confrontation between the government and the opposition as the country awoke to near paralysis on Thursday at the beginning of a general strike.
Caracas, the capital, was littered with roadblocks of burning rubbish and tyres, and wires stretched from lamppost to lamppost to stop traffic, as opponents of the president, Nicolás Maduro, try to block his plan to consolidate power.
Near Plaza Altamira, in the upscale eastern part of the city, young men manning the barricades turned away any cars that tried to pass, including a bus stamped with the logo of the government tax agency.
“We are seeing empty streets and most shops closed,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles while touring the city on foot.
Maduro has called for a vote on 30 July to elect a constituent assembly charged with rewriting the constitution. Opposition and human rights groups say the move is aimed at bypassing the National Assembly, which has been under opposition control since 2016, further consolidating the ruling Socialist party’s grip on power. Maduro argues a new constitution would promote dialogue in a country deeply polarised and crippled by widespread shortages of food, medicine and basic services, and unbridled violent crime.
The strike holds the threat of increasing repression from government forces and paramilitary militias, which have been blamed for more than 90 deaths during nearly four months of street demonstrations across the country. “There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen,” the International Crisis Group warned in a report.
The strike comes as the Trump administration in the US weighs up imposing “swift economic actions” if Maduro goes ahead with the election. “The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement. The United States is Venezuela’s largest trading partner, and the country is the third largest crude oil supplier to the US.
Colombia, France, Spain, and the EU have also urged the Venezuelan government to cancel the election.
The last time Venezuela’s opposition attempted a strike of this scale was in 2002. The stoppage lasted two months in an attempt to topple Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, who set the country on a path of “21st century socialism” before his death in 2013.
Mismanagement and plunging oil income under Maduro have left that project in tatters, driving hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to flee the country and leading the political opposition to try to increase pressure on the president to step down or call a general election.
On 16 July the opposition orchestrated an unofficial “consultation” of votersordered by the National Assembly in which more than 7 million Venezuelans voted to reject the constituent assembly, mandate parliament to appoint a new supreme court and electoral authority and to form a government of “national unity”. While symbolic and non-binding, the vote turned up the pressure on the government and emboldened the opposition to call the strike.
The country’s federation of business groups, Fedecamaras, which played a pivotal role in the 2002 strike, has not fully endorsed the action this time around but businesses have said their employees won’t be punished for not turning up for work.
Labour minister Néstor Ovalles said that private companies that close as part of the strike would be punished. “We won’t allow it, and we’ll be watching closely,” he warned.
Carmen Duque, who works at an insurance company, headed to work early on Thursday despite her desire to join the protest strike. “It looks like it’s a success,” she said as she manoeuvred through the blockaded streets of Altamira. “I wanted to join but I’m on call,” she said.
A woman dressed in a red T-shirt most often worn by government supporters, called strikers “puppets and zombies”. “The ones supporting this strike don’t understand anything,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.