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Venezuela's Government Plays Hardball To Block Opposition's Recall Effort

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A protester wears a respirator mask during a demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 18. Police used teargas against some demonstrators.

Blowing horns and chanting slogans, protesters gather outside a Caracas subway station. They plan to march to the National Electoral Council to demand that authorities hold a recall election.

But it's a sparse crowd. Shortly before the protest began, officials loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shut down subway stations in this part of the city. University student Daniel Barrios insists this was done to disrupt the march.

"The government is always trying to make us look small," he says. "You can see here the subway, and you can see the station's closed. And that's a predicament, because they need to take the subway to come to these types of demonstrations."

Venezuelans are furious about food shortages and out-of-control inflation. The crisis has melted popular support for Maduro. Polls now show that 70 percent of Venezuelans want him to go.

Opposition leaders hope to make that happen by way of a recall election. But the Maduro government is playing hardball to block this effort.

People claim that Maduro is ruining the country. But many have no time to march, because they have to stand in line at state-run supermarkets in hopes of buying scarce items, like milk and chicken, says Barrios.

There's also a fear factor: More than 40 people were killed during anti-government protests in 2014.

"So, you know, people [are] actually scared of going onto the streets because they, you know: 'I could get shot just for waving a flag!'" Barrios says.

In the battle over who should rule Venezuela, massive demonstrations are vital for the opposition. By taking over the streets, they hope to pressure electoral authorities into holding a recall election before the end of this year. Then, if Maduro loses, new presidential elections would be held, and the opposition could take power.

But Maduro claims the opposition — in cahoots with Washington — is illegally conspiring against him.

He responded by declaring a 60-day state of emergency earlier this month. That could make it harder for people to protest against his government.

What's more, the National Electoral Council is controlled by Maduro allies. Critics say they are trying to delay the recall until next year because, under that scenario, Maduro's handpicked vice president would finish his term, which ends in 2019.

At first, electoral authorities wouldn't even turn over the paperwork that the opposition needed to begin the recall process. They relented only after protesters chained themselves to the entrance of the electoral council office.

Now opposition politicians like Congressman Rafael Ramírez are going house to house to line up people for the next step in the recall process. For the recall to go forward, they will need to gather about 4 million signatures.

Many Venezuelans, like cleaning woman Sonia Rodriguez, are eager to sign. She complains about power outages, shortages of food and medicine and rising crime. "We need to get rid of this government as soon as possible," she says. "We can't take this anymore."

But the Maduro administration is also targeting the signature drive, say opposition supporters.

Arnoldo Bravo, who works for the government as a malaria control specialist, says he and other public employees have been told that if they sign the recall petition, they will be fired.

As for the march that started at the Caracas subway station, it was met by anti-riot police. Amid clouds of tear gas and pepper spray, the protest fizzled out.

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