Venezuela's political opposition took to the streets on Wednesday to pressure the country's electoral authorities into moving forward a process aimed at forcing a referendum on whether President Nicolás Maduro should stay in office.
Protesters marched in cities around the country. In the capital, Caracas, they faced rows of soldiers and police officers who blocked access to the National Electoral Council's headquarters. Authorities also shut down eight subway stations near the areas where protesters were expected.
"The fear that Nicolás Maduro has of his own people is showcased by the military display," leading opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted about the protest.
The electoral council missed its own deadline of Tuesday for evaluating the legitimacy of the 400,000 signatures the opposition collected in the first stage of its efforts to force the plebiscite. Instead, the council released a statement saying it would be meeting to discuss the signatures on Monday.
The statement also denied it was dragging its feet, and criticized the opposition's call for protests that it said risked degenerating into violence that could work against the possibility of securing a referendum.
"We call for all signs of violence to be avoided," the council said. "We remind people, just as we did last June, that any aggression or alteration of public order will force the suspension of electoral activities until order and tranquility have been restored."
Assuming the council does validate enough of the signatures to close the first stage of the process to force a referendum, it would then theoretically announce the dates during which promoters of the idea would be required to collect four million signatures.
The tension over timing reflects the fact that while a referendum held after January 2017 could push President Maduro out of office, he would be replaced by his vice president to see out his term. Losing the vote before the end of the year would require the electoral authorities to call a general election.
Maduro recently insisted that there is now no longer enough time to organize a referendum for this year. Diosdado Cabello, the former head of the National Assembly and close ally of the president, rammed home the message on Tuesday.
"There's simply no way of holding a referendum this year," he told supporters at a meeting of the food distribution network in the state of Trujillo. "And, by the way things look, we won't have it in 2017 either."
This week, the leadership of the ruling Socialist Party filed a formal accusation before the electoral authorities alleging that the opposition coalition used fraud while gathering signatures in favor of the referendum.
A June opinion poll by Venebarómetro concluded that 73 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro's administration, and 64 percent of them would be willing to vote in favor of removing him.
The controversy over the referendum comes as Venezuela's economic crisis deepens.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund estimated the country will end the year with 700 percent inflation. Meanwhile, gross domestic product is expected to contract by 8 percent, and shortages of food are triggering riots across the country.
A significant number of Venezuelans view crossing the country's closed border with Colombia as their only hope of obtaining basic goods and medication. This Tuesday Guyanese authorities announced the arrest of 14 Venezuelans who illegally entered the country reportedly in search of food.
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