Venezuela critics press for progress on presidential recall


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s socialist government is digging in its heels to stop a presidential recall vote as it fights to hold onto power amid an economic collapse.

The pro-government elections board missed its own Tuesday deadline to certify signatures on a petition demanding the start of a recall process. And now government supporters have lodged an official complaint with elections officials saying the opposition coalition should be disqualified as a political party.

Socialist party leader Jorge Rodriguez said the opposition falsified names during the first round of signature-gathering for the recall.

Critics of President Nicolas Maduro marched through Caracas Wednesday to demand the recall process go forward. Hundreds of police in riot gear blocked protesters’ path to the elections headquarters, forcing them down an alternate route.

Some protesters came prepared with helmets and bandanas in anticipation of the clashes with police that have marked other protests in support of the recall vote. But this march was smaller than previous demonstrations and it dissipated peacefully with an afternoon rain shower.

Elections officials called the planned march an act of intimidation, and said they would not take any more steps in the recall process until next week.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles warned that if elections officials did not allow the people to move ahead with the process, they would be responsible for the consequences.

“The people don’t want violence, but the people’s patience is running out. That’s why we demand a democratic solution,” he told a cheering crowd.

If a recall vote succeeds this year, Venezuela would see new presidential elections and Capriles would be among the strongest candidates. If it’s delayed until 2017, Maduro would simply be replaced by his vice president. Opponents say officials are stretching out a process that should take weeks to fill an entire year.

Maduro has consistently said the recall will not happen this year. With the economy projected to contract by 8 percent this year after a 5.7 percent fall in 2015, polls indicate the government would lose badly.

The opposition is also demanding the government release political prisoners. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that many imprisoned activists allege they have been tortured behind bars and threatened with rape and murder to confess crimes they didn’t commit. The government denies the accusations.

“Without strong regional pressure, the Venezuelan government may well believe that it can get away with brutal and authoritarian punishment for dissent.” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

At the same time, the government is easing pressure in some areas.

This month, officials released several anti-government activists widely seen as political prisoners and Maduro last week accepted an opposition proposal to ask the Vatican to facilitate dialogue with officials.

The government also has allowed its currency to weaken to its lowest official rate ever — much closer to the black-market rate — a move outside analysts widely see as necessary to start righting the collapsing economy.

As the march dispersed, opposition leaders promised to hold events Thursday and Friday to keep pressure up on the government. But at a supermarket line nearby, the political drama seemed removed from the increasingly difficult daily struggle to find food.

“What’s the point in protesting? The people in power are going to do what they’re going to do,” said housewife Luz Bastez. “What I’m worried about is whether the milk is going to run out at this store.”

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Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier .

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This story has been corrected to show that the deadline for signature certification was Tuesday.

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