CARACAS, Venezuela — People blocked streets in Caracas with broken concrete, twisted metal and flaming piles of trash Tuesday to protest the socialist president's bid to rewrite the constitution amid a rapidly escalating political crisis.
The barricades came a day after President Nicolas Maduro signed a decree to begin the process of rewriting the charter. Opposition leaders called the planned constitutional assembly a ploy to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018.
Polling suggests the socialists would lose both those elections badly at a time of widespread anger over triple-digit inflation and shortages of food and other goods.
Regional governments rejected the move in stronger language than they have used so far in condemning the South American country's crisis. Brazil called the move a "coup," and the U.S State Department threatened further sanctions based on Maduro's actions.
"What President Maduro is trying to do yet again is trying to change the rules of the game," said Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Maduro was vague about how members of the assembly would be chosen. He hinted some would selected by voters, but many observers expect the selection process to favour the socialists.
The president said Tuesday that he hoped the opposition would join in the process of creating a new constitution.
"They don't realize how lost they are in their violence. I'm extending my hand and asking them to come to the constitutional convention," he said.
Opposition leaders called for another major demonstration Wednesday.
If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the assembly. That could distract them from organizing the near-daily street protests that have kept up for four weeks, political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.
"It's a way of calling elections that uses up energy but does not carry risk, because it's not a universal, direct and secret vote," Leon said. "And it has the effect of pushing out the possibility of elections this year and probably next year as well."
The opposition-majority congress officially rejected Maduro's constitutional congress Tuesday, saying the idea should first be put to a vote of Venezuelans. It was a symbolic gesture because the legislative body has no power to block a constitutional assembly.
Venezuela's constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, who launched a socialist revolution in the oil-exporting nation. Chavez called his new constitution the best in the world, and promised it would last centuries. He carried around a blue pocket-sized version of the document, and would often whip it out and say, "This is our Bible. After the Bible, this." At the height of his popularity, people would mob him to ask that he sign their copies.
Police repressed scattered protests Tuesday with tear gas, as they have nearly daily for weeks. At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured. On Tuesday, the government suspended for 180 days the right to carry guns.
The wave of unrest began in reaction to an attempt to nullify the opposition controlled-congress, but has become a vehicle for people to vent their fury at Venezuela's economic ruin and violent crime. Residents manning the barricades that choked streets across the capital Tuesday vowed to protest until Maduro leaves office.
"Unlike some of these young people, I remember a time before the socialists. Now is not the time for fear," said 36 year-old chauffeur Ricardo Herrera as he arranged trash and pieces of concrete into a street barricade in front of his apartment building.
Herrera had so far sat out the protests because he had to get to work, but decided after Maduro's announcement that he could no longer stand by.
"No one is going to work today. If we back down now, we'll be under their boot for the rest of our lives," he said.
Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier . Her work can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone .
Hannah Dreier, The Associated Press