By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and JORGE RUEDA, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his opponents face a crucial showdown Thursday as the country's opposition calls the first national strike since a 2002 stoppage that failed to topple Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Fifteen years later, Chavez's socialist party controls vast swathes of the Venezuelan economy, making it harder for opponents to bring the country to a halt. Easing their task is the fact that much of the economy is already faltering, hamstrung by a plunge in oil prices and years of corruption and mismanagement.
The 24-hour strike was meant as an expression of national disapproval of Maduro's plan to convene a constitutional assembly that would reshape the Venezuelan system to consolidate the ruling party's power over the few institutions that remain outside its control. The opposition is boycotting a July 30 election to select members of the assembly.
The country's largest business group, Fedecamaras, has cautiously avoided full endorsement of the strike, but its members have told employees that they won't be punished for coming to work. Fedecamaras played a central role in the months-long 2002-2003 strike that Chavez's political rivals and opponents in Venezuela's private business sector orchestrated in an attempt to topple him.
Chavez emerged from the strike and exerted control over the private sector with years of expropriations, strict regulations and imports bought with oil money and meant to replace local production. Business groups estimate that 150,000 Venezuelan businesses have closed over the last 15 years.
"This is a work stoppage by civil society. He who wants to work, work. Who wants to stop, stop," said Francisco Martinez, the president of Fedecamaras.
Government-run industries will remain open and Labor Minister Nestor Ovalles said the Maduro administration would punish private companies that close in sympathy with the strike.
"We won't allow, and we'll be closely watching, any disruption that violates the working class' right to work," Ovalles said. "Businesses that join the strike will be punished."
The business group's incoming president, economist Carlos Larrazabal, said the strike would be of limited duration to avoid worsening Venezuela's already dire shortages of food and other basic products.
"Inventory levels right are very precarious," Larrazabal said. "If the supply chains are affected more than they are right now, we could have a bigger problem."
However, the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, a labor coalition with ties to the opposition, said at least 12 of its 20 member organizations across the country had decided to join the strike. Transportation workers in the capital, Caracas, also said they would participate.
"There's an appeal to the conscience of the Venezuelan people," said Pedro Jimenez, head of a major transport workers' union. "There won't be transportation services."
More than 24 hours before the start of the strike, neighborhood groups across Caracas were setting up roadblocks of tree branches and tires in to protest Maduro's plans to change the constitution, irritating some residents.
"The government jails the people who protest and those who are protesting are caging the rest of us. It's unfair," said Maria Sandoval, a 27-year-old medical secretary.
But those manning the roadblocks said they had no plans to stop until Maduro fell, complicating the scenario for Wednesday.
"We have been blocking the streets since yesterday and we will do it all week," said protester Ester de Moreno. "We will continue doing this until this man leaves."
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