Venezuela braces for mass protests against president's reforms

On the streets of Caracas, Venezuela — already one of the most dangerous cities in the world — tension from many months of protests could come to a head with what is expected to be a massive confrontation on Friday.

Demonstrations seen by opposition as last-ditch attempt to stop authoritarian reforms

Demonstrators use a tire on fire to block a street at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

On the streets of Caracas, Venezuela — already one of the most dangerous cities in the world — tension from many months of protests could come to a head with what is expected to be a massive confrontation on Friday.

The capital has been gripped by protests since the spring, when the country's Supreme Court, stacked with loyalists to President Nicolas Maduro, dissolved the opposition-led National Assembly, the country's top legislative body.

Venezuelans had only recently elected an opposition coalition to lead the assembly, which was expected by many to rewrite the South American country's socialist constitution of 1999, enacted by then-President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuelan journalist and activist Melanio Escobar looks out over an empty highway in central Caracas. (CBC)

Though quickly reversed, the ruling ignited a protest movement. Since then, demonstrations and a violent crackdown by the government have taken the lives of over 100 people, severely wounded countless more and left hundreds behind bars.

Maduro has dismissed the protests as attempts at a coup and blames the U.S. for the chaos in his country.

"The way we're living now, it's nothing like how it used to be in this country," says Melanio Escobar, one of the few independent journalists left in the country, as he overlooks an empty and blockaded highway near the city centre.

Escobar, 30, a heavily tattooed father and husband, doesn't mince words when he speaks about Maduro, and is far past considering himself just a journalist. He says he sees himself as an activist in the fight that's gripped his country — he also runs a humanitarian NGO — and as an information hub for tens of thousands who tune into his Twitter live streams.

Nearly every day he starts out by driving through the city streets, relaying information about the protests to his online audience. This day was no different, and his efforts drew glares from the law enforcement and national guard patrols.

At one point, a convoy of 20 or more national guardsmen on motorbikes swarmed Escobar as he filmed on a bridge. The encounter ends quickly, almost as if they only wanted to say, "We're watching you, too."

"Ten years ago, even with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was pretty good," he recalls.

"I used to throw concerts," which included an appearance by the U.S. punk band The Misfits, "and the economy was stable."

"Today the economy is so bad that your daily salary doesn't get you through the day," he says.

The average monthly wage in Venezuela is estimated to be around $20 US, but with the world's highest inflation rate, and no sign of a recovery in the price of oil — which is the country's chief economic driver — the situation will likely worsen.

One Caracas resident in his late 20s, who asked not to be named, told CBC News that with his salary of about $90 US per month, he's considered better off. Nonetheless, he added, he could just barely afford food while still living at home with his mother.

He said he's already begun the paperwork to emigrate elsewhere in search of work, like most of his friends.

Signalling the worsening situation, Avianca Airlines, the Colombian carrier that has served the country for 60 years, said on Thursday that it would immediately halt its services out of Caracas, citing security concerns.

A woman runs away from riot security forces at a rally in Caracas during this week's 48-hour national strike. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Surreal scene

A call went out from opposition leaders on Wednesday for a 48-hour national strike to protest a government plan to rewrite the constitution. Demonstrators blockaded entire neighbourhoods in the capital using makeshift wires and set fire to garbage, rendering streets and major highways unusable.

Manning each roadblock were groups of balaclava-clad protesters, some just barely teenagers, others well into their later years.

Yet, amid the demonstration, groups of joggers took to the empty highways and made their way through the smokey blockades. In Altamira Square, an affluent section of downtown Caracas, parents walked about with their kids while others loitered with friends.

The scene was more than slightly surreal. A few restaurants even remained open. At one intersection, a TGI Fridays stood open directly across the road from a group of four masked protesters armed with Molotov cocktails.

Many here are calling this week's efforts their last stand against dictatorship, and signs of anger with Maduro are everywhere. Graffiti adorns walls across the city, and images of Maduro have been defaced. His approval rating is reportedly around 20 per cent.

A shrine to a 17-year-old protester, Neomar Lander, killed in Maduro's crackdown has been erected in the centre of Altamira. The vest he was wearing when he was killed reads "I'm a liberator."

"On Friday, we're facing the most important demonstration of our three months of protesting," says Escobar.

People gather near a shrine marking in the spot where 17-year-old protester Neomar Lander was killed by government forces. (CBC)

'Colony of the empire'

The protests on Friday are being called "The Taking of Caracas" and will occur two days before a new legislative group, the Constituent Assembly, is expected to be voted into existence. It will replace the National Assembly and is expected to be stacked with Maduro loyalists, who will have the power to rewrite the constitution to maximize their own power.

Maduro has billed the vote as a choice Venezuelans must make between being either "a free country or a colony of the empire" — his term for the United States.

Opposition leaders have urged Venezuelans to boycott the vote, and to come from across the country to protest in Caracas. They say the election is rigged and that a new constitution could replace democracy with a single-party authoritarian system.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech during the closing campaign ceremony for the upcoming Constituent Assembly election in Caracas. The banner reads 'Power.' (Carlos Garcias Rawlins/Reuters)

"It's very important because it's only two days before the election, the illegal election," Escobar says. "Civil society, journalists, opposition, everyone expects it to be huge."

The opposition held its own vote in July, in which over seven million out of a total of 31 million Venezuelans took part. According to opposition statistics, 98 per cent of the voters rejected the proposed new assembly.

The U.S announced new sanctions against 13 top Venezuelan officials on Thursday, thereby freezing their U.S. assets, and President Donald Trump claimed he'd pursue "strong and swift economic actions" if the election takes place on July 30.

Thus far, there are zero signs that it won't.

With files from The Associated Press