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World

Venezuela's Opposition Plans Referendum

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK - to Venezuela now, which appears to be descending yet further into crisis. Yesterday looked like it might be quiet and a pause from months of anti-government protests, as Venezuelans marked their nation's Independence Day. But it was a brief pause. The celebrations were interrupted by pro-government mobs who stormed Congress and attacked lawmakers. Reporter John Otis has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The day began with a military parade in Caracas. As soldiers marched past President Nicolas Maduro, they declared their loyalty to Venezuela's socialist revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: But the revolution, which was ushered in by the late Hugo Chavez 18 years ago, is in shambles. Maduro, who replaced Chavez in 2013, has led the country into a deep economic and political crisis. His government has jailed hundreds of opponents. It's also canceled or postponed elections that could have removed Maduro and the ruling socialist party from power.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: This has led to three months of protests in which about 90 people have been killed in clashes with security forces. Maduro now claims that peace and prosperity will require a new constitution. On July 30, voting will take place for a special assembly that will be tasked with writing the new document. But the political opposition is boycotting the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIO BORGES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, opposition lawmaker Julio Borges called it a maneuver to allow Maduro to remain in power forever. Legal experts say that, under the law, Venezuelans must first vote on whether they want a new constitution. The Maduro government has refused to take this step. So Borges announced plans to put the matter before voters in another referendum to be held on July 16.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORGES: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: He said, "let the people decide."

Instead of attending yesterday's parade, Borges and other opposition leaders met at the Congress building in downtown Caracas. That's when a horde of masked men forced their way inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

OTIS: This Venezuelan TV reporter was at Congress as the invaders fired homemade mortars and pistols. They used rocks and metal pipes to beat the lawmakers, three of whom were hospitalized. Among them was Armando Armas. Despite a nasty head wound, he was defiant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMANDO ARMAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Nearly 100 youths have died in the protests, so a few blows from these thugs is nothing," he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: President Maduro condemned the violence. But it was the second time this year that pro-government gangs have attacked Congress, the only branch of power controlled by the opposition. Lawmaker Jose Correa said it was a terrible example to set on Independence Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE CORREA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Besides the lawmakers," he said, "Venezuela's democracy was also wounded."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEDRO BROMFMAN'S "PROLOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.