Venezuela opposition calls for 'mega protests' against Maduro's move on constitution

President Nicolas Maduro's plan for a new constitution sparks fresh protests in crisis-torn Venezuela

Garbage cans were used to block the streets in those protests.

Opposition demonstrators and riot police clash during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on May 3, 2017.

Opposition leaders called the planned constitutional assembly a ploy to keep Maduro and his allies in power by putting off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018. Opinion polls have suggested the socialists would lose both elections badly at a time of widespread anger over triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and other goods.

The idea of rewriting the constitution, said Diego Moya-Campos of the London-based risk consultancy IHS Markit, "is a desperate measure by a government that knows it can not call elections because it is going to lose and resorts to polarization".

Some government workers acknowledged they had been coerced into attending Monday's pro-Maduro rally.

"The day has come, brothers", Maduro said.

"I am no Mussolini", he added. Who would get to be on the constituent assembly? He hinted some would selected by voters, but many observers expect the selection process to favor the socialists.

Socialists accuse the opponents of exploiting the poor and allege they are backed by the US. A constitutional rewrite process could delay elections for more than a year.

The constitution was last rewritten in 1999 under former President Hugo Chavez, who called the new document the best in the world.

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"What has happened today, and I say this without exaggerations... is the most serious coup d'etat to have taken place in the history of Venezuela... the Democratic Unity Roundtable and opposition legislators call on the people to rebel against it!" he told reporters.

Since December 2015, Venezuela has witnessed a stand-off between the Maduro government and the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which swore to use its mandate to remove the government from power. Maduro, but a bill introduced Wednesday in the U.S. Senate by a broad bipartisan coalition offers a way forward, including $10 million to seed a U.S. -led humanitarian aid initiative, strengthened sanctions on senior officials and the compilation of a public report on those officials' involvement in drug trafficking and corruption.

"One of the aims of the constituent assembly is to seek the conditions of stability to be able to go to those electoral processes", Jaua said.

A constituent assembly would have the power to call elections and to dissolve other state institutions, potentially giving Maduro an avenue to abolish the opposition-led Congress.

"What President Maduro is trying to do yet again is trying to change the rules of the game", said Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Police repressed scattered protests Tuesday with tear gas, as they have almost daily for weeks. It has pounded opposition marchers with rubber bullets and enveloped them in tear gas ; 29 people have been reported killed in the demonstrations. On Tuesday, the government suspended for 180 days the right to carry guns.

The government has responded with shows of force by security forces and counter-demonstrations by Maduro supporters. Hundreds more have been injured, including more than 150 on Wednesday alone.

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