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Venezuelan President Announces Plan To Rewrite Its Constitution


Let's turn now to Venezuela, where opponents of President Nicolas Maduro - this week marked their 100th day of violent street protests. They're angry about Venezuela's economic nosedive and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Maduro. Now, his socialist government is on the cusp of assuming even more power through a plan to rewrite that country's constitution. Here's reporter John Otis.

SAUL ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Saul Ortega is a congressman for Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party. He's brought me to a political meeting held on a basketball court in the western city of Valencia. For Ortega, it's a friendly crowd because most of the people have received free government apartments.


OTIS: Tonight's topic is elections. On July 30, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect a constituent assembly. This assembly will be charged with writing a new constitution.

ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ortega tells the crowd that this new constitution will guarantee the survival of numerous social welfare programs and help resolve Venezuela's political crisis. But the existing constitution was penned just 18 years ago, and Congressman Ortega was one of its authors. I'm also unclear on how writing a new one will do anything to solve dire problems like food shortages and skyrocketing crime. So Ortega puts my question to the crowd.


OTIS: The people roar their approval for the constituent assembly and start doing the wave. Opposition leaders claim that this whole exercise has nothing to do with solving problems. Instead, they call it an illegal power grab by the Maduro government. Under current law, the government must first hold a referendum to ask Venezuelans whether they favor a constitutional rewrite. Maduro has refused to do this. Legal experts say gerrymandering and a convoluted voting system favor the election of pro-government candidates. Moreover, the constituent assembly will have extraordinary powers.

BENJAMIN SCHARIFKER: It becomes a dictatorship because all the institutions - all Democratic institutions will have no power because they - this constituent assembly will take over the power.

OTIS: That's Benjamin Scharifker, dean of the Metropolitan University in Caracas. He says that the assembly could postpone next year's presidential election. It could dissolve Venezuela's 23 state governments. Or, he says, it could close the National Congress, which is the only branch of power not controlled by the ruling party.

SCHARIFKER: What I'm saying is not just speculation. It's something that some candidates to the national - this constituent assembly have already said.

OTIS: In response, the opposition is boycotting the election and promoting an alternative round of balloting. On Sunday, a symbolic nationwide plebiscite will be held in which Venezuelans will be asked whether or not they want a new constitution. The opposition is hoping to embarrass Maduro with a massive turnout and millions of Venezuelans voting no.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back on the basketball court, none of this seems to matter to the fired-up crowd of government supporters. Among them is Yahirys Rivas. She's a 33-year-old social worker, who hopes to win one of about 500 seats making up the constituent assembly.

YAHIRYS RIVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rivas points out that President Maduro has called on all Venezuelans to take part in this process. An opposition boycott, she says, is not going to stop the constitutional rewrite from going forward. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Valencia, Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "BLUE LINE SWINGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.