President Donald Trump has threatened to take “strong and swift economic actions” if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro goes ahead with controversial plans to reshape the country’s constitution.
More than seven million Venezuelans cast symbolic votes with 98 per cent rejecting President Maduro’s plan, which the country’s opposition says will create a virtual socialist dictatorship.
Sunday’s vote was marred by violence with a 61-year-old woman killed and four people wounded by gunfire after government supporters on motorcycles swarmed an opposition polling site in a church in western Caracas.
“Yesterday, the Venezuelan people again made clear that they stand for democracy, freedom and rule of law,” President Trump said in a statement.
“Yet their strong and courageous actions continue to be ignored by a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator,” he added.
“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles. If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”
Venezuela’s opposition coalition has called for a general strike to take place on Thursday in protest over President Maduro’s plans.
“We call on the whole country to take part in a massive, peaceful protest, a national 24-hour strike,” opposition leader Freddy Guevara said Monday.
The opposition says that July 30 vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow President Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.
David Smilde, a Tulane University expert on Venezuela, said leaders of the 20-odd groups in the Democratic Unity opposition coalition were now faced with choosing between tactics ranging from calling a general strike to forming a parallel government or simply working to rally international condemnation of President Maduro’s plans.
“Overall, this [symbolic] vote, I think, makes it difficult for the government to just proceed as planned,” Mr Smilde told AAP. “I think it’s going to embolden the international community to reject it.”
Canada and Mexico were among the countries that issued statements Sunday evening lauding the opposition exercise.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox was banned from ever returning to the country, after acting as an observer in Sunday’s non-binding referendum.
After three months of anti-government protests at least 93 people have died, 1500 wounded and more than 500 put in jail since April.
Crippling debt could force Venezuela to default
As the South American nation is gripped by social unrest it is being paralysed by mounting debt, food shortages and a depletion of foreign reserves.
Venezuela’s reserves dropped below $10 billion for the first time since 1995 – the $9.9 billion remaining is a 77 per cent decrease since January 2009 when it hit a peak of $43 billion, according to Central Bank of Venezuela data published on Sunday.
Meanwhile, experts fear that Venezuela will default on its debt obligations this year as the country struggles with capital and interest repayments of $5 billion owed this year.
“The state of the foreign reserves and the general waste of Venezuela’s foreign exchange earnings is one of the saddest stories of modern economic history,” Universidad Central de Venezuela economist Javier Hernández told AFP.
And as a result of unpaid debts, the food crisis in Venezuela is worsening.
According to a CNN report, the average Venezuelan living in extreme poverty lost more than eight kilograms due to the lack of food last year.
It found the majority of its citizens had been forced to skip meals according to a national poll, with the price of food staples, including rice, eggs, milk and fruit costing four times the monthly minimum wage.
CNN reported a bag of rice in March cost 219,000 bolivars, approximately $US49 ($A62) at the time.
Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage has increased three times this year and currently sits at 250,531 bolivars.