Venezuela on edge after anti-Maduro referendum blocked | Reuters

By Andrew Cawthorne
| CARACAS

CARACAS Opposition leaders vowed peaceful protests on Friday and accused President Nicolas Maduro's government of crossing the line into dictatorship after the failure of their push to remove the socialist leader.The 53-year-old Maduro warned his foes not to "go crazy." The election board on Thursday suspended the opposition drive for a recall referendum, despite the OPEC nation's crushing economic crisis and Maduro's unpopularity. The president is now on track to complete his term, which ends in early 2019.The suspension also dealt a massive blow to the Democratic Unity coalition, which was buoyed by winning legislative elections at the end of 2015 but has then seen its all-consuming effort for a vote to recall Maduro this year come to nothing."Our response will not be submission or violence, but a fight ... based on the principles of peaceful resistance," said coalition head Jesus Torrealba, drawing a parallel with Polish leader Lech Walesa's battle against communism in the 1980s. "The government has 80 percent of the country against it, it does not have international support, and it's breaking both the law and the constitution."With the opposition due to announce formal strategies later on Friday, a few dozen angry students took to the streets of Caracas. They were blocked from marching by police. "Socialism has failed here, everyone can see that," said student Saray Nava, 18, among demonstrators outside a university. "This disaster affects us young people the most. We don't want to leave like so many have. We want to work in Venezuela, have children in Venezuela."Citing court orders due to government allegations of fraud in an initial signature drive, the election board cancelled the next phase in the lengthy referendum process: the collection of 4 million signatures to trigger the vote.

Critics say both the judiciary and the election authority are subservient to the state, and barely any of their decisions have gone against Maduro since his rule began in 2013.Adding to their fury, opposition figures published what they said is a court document ordering eight of them not to leave Venezuela, including Torrealba and twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. Judicial and government representatives did not immediately confirm the document.HARDLINERS URGE DISOBEDIENCE

Some of the harder-line opposition figures, including veteran activist Maria Corina Machado and jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori, are urging civil disobedience. "This dictatorship will not grant us anything. We have to achieve change in peace, democracy and - above all - in the street," Lopez's Popular Will party said.In 2014, opposition protests led to 43 deaths, including security force members and both government and opposition supporters. Many of Venezuela's 30 million people are worried about a fresh bout of unrest."I call for calm, dialogue, peace, respect for justice and the law," Maduro told state TV from Azerbaijan, during a tour of oil producers seeking measures to bolster global crude prices."No one should go crazy ... the irresponsible group leading the Venezuelan right must not spoil Christmas."Enduring a third year of recession, Venezuelans are increasingly skipping meals amid food shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader elected three years ago after Chavez died from cancer, has seen his popularity tumble to just above 20 percent.While foes have blamed failed socialist policies, the government has pointed to the steep slump in oil prices and alleged a U.S.-led "economic war" against it.Government officials said the opposition brought on its own troubles by delaying the request for a referendum and then committing fraud such as adding names of minors and dead people to the initial signature drive."Justice is being done," senior Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters, adding that 8,600 fraud allegations had been lodged against the opposition at courts around the country.Thursday's decision came despite intense international pressure on Venezuelan authorities - from the White House to around an increasingly conservative Latin American region - to allow the referendum. "We are deeply concerned by the decision," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said. "This decision is indicative of the council's polarization and the extent to which it is being used to block the Venezuelan people's ability to exercise their constitutional democratic right to determine the direction of their country." (Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, W Simon, Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio)

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Published Date: Oct 22, 2016 02:16 am | Updated Date: Oct 22, 2016 02:16 am