Venezuelans protest Maduro's plan to rewrite constitution

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Protesters rallied Saturday in the Venezuelan capital for a march toward the embattled nation's Supreme Court, chanting slogans opposing President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution.

Organizers hope the opposition-led demonstration will send a forceful message to Maduro to cancel a July 30 election for delegates to a constitutional assembly that would be tasked with overhauling the nation's charter.

Protests have been ramping up ahead of the vote, but the crowd remained relatively small by early Saturday afternoon. A few thousand turned out in opposition strongholds in eastern Caracas, and elsewhere there were hundreds or dozens.

"The moment to defend Venezuela has arrived," opposition lawmaker Richard Blanco told a crowd before the march. "We will stay in the streets."

National guard troops launched tear gas in at least one location in Caracas, blocking protesters with clouds of white gas and rows of officers on motorcycles.

Opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares called the gas "unnecessary" and squinted and rubbed his eyes after being hit by the fumes.

"Here we are going to fight," Olivares said. "This is for our future."

Venezuelan authorities have routinely responded with tear gas and rubber bullets to nearly four months of street protests, during which at least 97 people have died in the unrest and thousands more have been injured or detained.

Demonstrators are also demanding new presidential elections in light of the nation's triple-digit inflation, food shortages and soaring crime.

Maduro has shown no sign of giving in, instead promoting the constitutional rewrite as a solution for Venezuela's political standoff and dire economy.

In recent days he and pro-government leaders have also warned that once the special assembly is elected, those they brand as "fascists" and "terrorists" could face justice.

Maduro critics fear he will use it to further consolidate his power. The assembly could remove his most vocal critics from their posts.

In Washington, President Donald Trump's administration threatened this week to take "strong and swift economic actions" if Maduro proceeds with the constitution rewrite.

More than 7.5 million Venezuelans heeded opposition calls to vote in an unofficial referendum rejecting Maduro's plan last Sunday, leaders said. On Thursday a 24-hour strike paralyzed much of the country. And on Friday the opposition-controlled congress appointed a slate of judges to replace the current members of the government-stacked Supreme Court.

The nation's highest court swiftly rejected those appointments and warned that the judges could face charges of illegally usurping authority.

"The people voted and they rejected this constituent assembly," read the sign of one man who marched through the streets with a stream of people.

"We are at 'zero hour,'" metropolitan Caracas Mayor Helen Fernandez said, referring to the opposition's protest plan. "We will elevate our protest to wherever necessary."

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