By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition called on Monday for a national shutdown against President Nicolas Maduro in a major escalation of protests against a leftist government it accuses of flouting the people’s will.
“We are not going to allow the destruction of Venezuela. The whole country overwhelmingly rejects the Maduro regime,” said opposition leader Freddy Guevara, announcing the first 24-hour strike in nearly four months of anti-government demonstrations that have led to some 100 deaths.
The opposition – which wants restaurants, shops and transport to come to a standstill on Thursday – said it would also take steps to set up a “national unity” government and name new alternative judges to the pro-Maduro Supreme Court.
That raised the possibility of a parallel state structure to challenge government-controlled institutions.
The opposition said it brought 7.6 million people out on Sunday for an unofficial vote intended to de-legitimize a man they call a dictator.
Maduro’s foes are demanding a presidential election and want to stop his plan to create a controversial new legislative super-body called a Constituent Assembly in a July 30 vote.
They are also seeking freedom for about 400 jailed activists, independence for the opposition-controlled legislature, and permission for foreign humanitarian aid to Venezuelans suffering shortages and hunger.
Guevara said the opposition would only talk with the government if the constituent plan was withdrawn. The hardball strategy recalls events before a short-lived coup against Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez in 2002.
(For a graphic on Venezuela’s dark days, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2qsTmHg)
Venezuela’s leading business group Fedecamaras, which played a major role against Chavez in 2002, said it would be up to each company and its workers to decide whether to heed opposition actions.
On Sunday, opposition supporters voted overwhelmingly – by 98 percent – to reject the proposed new assembly, urge the military to defend the existing constitution, and support elections before Maduro’s term ends.
‘SHOW OF FORCE’
The 7.6 million people who participated in Sunday’s event was just under 7.7 million opposition votes in the 2015 legislative elections, that it won by a landslide.
The turnout followed just two weeks of organization, with voting at 2,000 polling stations, seven times fewer than those used in the official 2015 vote.
“The result is a remarkable show of force for…