Venezuela's opposition has called a nationwide strike for Thursday to press President Nicolás Maduro to back off a rewriting of the constitution. The move is ratcheting up tensions after an unofficial vote rejecting Maduro's plan and amid months of deadly protests.
The strike call, issued on Monday, was part of what the opposition called a "final offensive" aimed at forcing Maduro out through early elections before his term ends in 2019.
On Sunday, in an event organized by the opposition, more than a third of Venezuela's 19 million voters rejected Maduro's bid to have a citizens' body called a "Constituent Assembly" elected on July 30 to redraft the constitution.
Several countries lauded the balloting. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday it sent an "unmistakable statement" to Maduro and his government.
“Symbolically, it’s a massive deal,” Girish Gupta, a Reuters reporter based in Caracas, told The World. “Especially two weeks before the government essentially holds its own [referendum].”
But it was unclear what real impact the symbolic balloting — which the government dismissed as illegal and politically irrelevant — would have.
“The numbers are so huge you would think the government couldn't ignore it,” Gupta said. “However, it has a habit of doing exactly that.”
The European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, said that Maduro should suspend his plan, or he "risks further polarizing the country and increasing confrontation."
However, Maduro and his government, backed by a loyal military, have dug in against the opposition tactics and the international criticism.
Despite growing public anger at food and medicine shortages under a spiraling economic crisis that has fed into the opposition movement, authorities in Caracas portray the efforts against them as illegitimate and the result of interference from the "imperialist" United States.
'Escalation' to follow
"We are calling all the country to take part in a massive and violence-free protest through a nationwide civic strike for 24 hours," said one leader in the opposition coalition, Freddy Guevara.
He said the stoppage was a "mechanism for pressure and to prepare for the definitive escalation to take place next week."
There were fears, however, that the stepped-up confrontation could worsen violence in Venezuela's streets. Since April, when anti-Maduro protests and police pushback turned bloody, 96 people have died.
The opposition set the scene for the strike with its vote Sunday, which it called a "plebiscite" but which the government dismissed as "illegal."
Electoral authorities, who have systematically sided with Maduro against the opposition-controlled legislature, denied authorization for the balloting.
Academics who oversaw the symbolic poll as guarantors of its credibility counted a turnout of more than 7 million voters, undermining legitimacy for Maduro's future Constituent Assembly. The New York Times reported that 98 percent of ballots sided with the opposition.
Brazil's Foreign Ministry said in a statement "the high turnout in the plebiscite ... was an unmistakable sign the Venezuelan people want democracy quickly restored." It, too, called on Maduro to shelve his Constituent Assembly idea.
Venezuela's opposition, invigorated by the voter support and the international reactions, clearly was keen to seize the moment.
"The mandate the people have given us is clear," said Julio Borges, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Borges said the vote showed a public desire to see Maduro leave power before his term ends.
Political analyst John Magdaleno told Agence France-Presse that "there is evidence of a persistent and durable demand for political change."
The result of Sunday's vote may not have been binding, but Venezuela "sent a clear message to the national executive and the world," announced Central University of Venezuela president Cecilia García Arocha, one of several experts who oversaw Sunday's vote.
García noted that 6,492,381 voted in the country and 693,789 voted abroad, according to a count of 95 percent of ballots. Final results would be released Monday, she said.
According to Borges, once all ballots are counted, there will be some 7.5 million votes, which he said would be sufficient to overturn Maduro's mandate if there were a recall referendum.
To lend weight to the vote, a group of former Latin American presidents, including Mexico's Vicente Fox, who was declared "persona non grata" by the government, took part as observers.
Speaking Monday to The World, Reuters' Gupta said these are hopeful signs for Venezuelans who have been hoping for foreign intervention. “All of these things are now seeming to align against Maduro,” he said.
But Luis Vicente León, head of the polling firm Datanálisis, said the opposition's challenge now was to leverage the vote to "crack" Maduro's stance and "press for negotiations that would give an peaceful chance for change."
The opposition has accused Maduro of driving the country into bankruptcy, and of planning to use the Constituent Assembly to entirely sideline the legislature.
For many ordinary Venezuelans suffering under shortages of basic goods, sky-high inflation and climbing unemployment, the vote was a way of expressing frustration at the president and his policies.
Yet Maduro has insisted his proposed Constituent Assembly is "the only path" to peace and economic recovery. Thus far, he has shown no sign of backing down.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.