CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s government will press ahead with a vote to elect a constituent assembly on July 30, an official said on Sunday, prompting the opposition to blast the body as a fraud designed to keep embattled President Nicolas Maduro in power.
Tensions in two months of sustained unrest spiked on Sunday with the death of a young man who was set on fire last month during an anti-government protest.
Beset by near-daily street protests, Maduro in May announced a plan for a “constituent assembly” with powers to rewrite the constitution, in what he says is a bid to bring peace back to the oil-rich nation.
But opponents say Maduro, helped by a compliant Supreme Court and National Electoral Council, is in fact seeking to dodge national elections and ignored protester demands for an end to crushing food and medicine shortages.
“We’re going to propose to the National Electoral Council (CNE) for its approval ... the date of July 30,” the head of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, said in a speech transmitted on state television on Sunday.
Lucena celebrated what she said was a surprisingly high number of candidates and high female representation.
There will not be a general election for the assembly, but rather a complex set of local and group-based votes the opposition says favor the ruling Socialist Party.
The opposition has vowed to boycott the constituent assembly, and is instead calling for early presidential elections and respect for the existing congress, which has been led by Maduro critics since early 2016.
“Tibisay Lucena, you are equally responsible for the dead and injured!” tweeted opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in reference to the at least 65 people who have died in the unrest kicked off in April.
Orlando Figuera, 22, died on Sunday after having been set ablaze during a protest in affluent east Caracas last month, the state prosecutor’s office said in a statement, adding it was investigating the case.
The government says Figuera was targeted for being “Chavista,” or a supporter of late leftist Hugo Chavez, because he had dark skin and looked poor.
But a Reuters witness on site said a group of mostly hooded protesters pursued Figuera, calling him a thief, after he was accused of trying to rob a woman.
Lynchings and mob violence have become more common in violent Venezuela, with many feeling they have to take justice into their own hands due to widespread impunity and crime.
The government, however, says Figuera’s death is more evidence that a thuggish opposition is seeking to stoke hate to be able to stage a coup and install a U.S.-backed government.
“Stop it already, for the love of God!” Maduro said in his weekly Sunday program, urging Venezuelans not to let “hate” win. “How far will they go?”
The opposition, in turn, says Maduro is manipulating the case and failing to address what they say is widespread repression by heavy-handed security forces. Some 3,000 people have been arrested since the start of protests, with around a third still behind bars, according to rights group Penal Forum.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and Mary Milliken