Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro says he will seek reelection in snap elections in April, despite mounting pressure from opposition parties who say he is responsible for the nation's economic collapse and growing authoritarianism.
The pro-government Constituent Assembly this week announced that the vote would be held by April 30, months ahead of when it traditionally takes place.
The United States criticized the upcoming vote as an effort that will only serve to undermine Venezuela's constitutional order.
"The vote would be neither free nor fair. It would only deepen, not help resolve, national tensions," State Department Heather Nauert said in a statement on Wednesday.
Maduro, 55, has been in power since the 2013 death of Hugo Chavez, the founder of Venezuela's ruling socialist party.
Reuters reporter Girish Gupta says Maduro's critics blame him for the breakdown of the country's oil-reliant economy, which has sparked a humanitarian crisis marked by stark shortages of food, medical supplies and other basic necessities.
"The fact is that Venezuelans are really suffering at the moment. They're in queues for food. They're not eating properly," he tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "You see queues of thousands of people outside supermarkets every single day."
Economic sanctions against Maduro's government have further exacerbated the country's fiscal woes, Reuters reports.
Venezuela is experiencing severe hyperinflation. The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will hit 13,000 percent in 2018 and that the economy will shrink by 15 percent, Bloomberg reports.
"What this means for Venezuelans is their currency, their money in their pockets, their wages are just worth nothing, absolutely nothing," Gupta says.
Before a rally of supporters on Tuesday, Maduro repeated his nationalist agenda as well as his claim that his government is fighting a U.S.-led right-wing conspiracy to eliminate socialism in Venezuela, according to Reuters.
"Donald Trump is not the boss of Venezuela," Maduro declared. "The people rule Venezuela, not empires."
Many leaders of Venezuela's fractured and weak opposition have been imprisoned by the government, barred from politics or remain in self-imposed exile. They claim the electoral system has been rigged to favor Maduro and his ruling party.
"The election will be held on Maduro's terms, allowing him to ensure victory," the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, told Reuters. "All of this will come at a cost of increased international isolation, something that the government seems will to stomach if the tradeoff is to lose power."
Last year, Maduro tightened his grip on power when he engineered the creation of the Constituent Assembly consisting mainly of his supporters, which usurped lawmaking powers from the National Assembly of Venezuela. In November, the new lawmaking body passed an anti-hate law cracking down on the media and prohibiting some opposition political parties from registering with the electoral council.
Protests erupted across the country in response to what the opposition described as an end to democracy in Venezuela. But in a January interview with The New Yorker, Maduro claimed his government is not a dictatorship.
"They say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela, a strange dictatorship, where people have broad liberties, where the people go out to vote at least once a year, where the people choose their leaders freely with direct voting, secret voting," he said. "Venezuela has a democratic society in revolution."
Gupta says on the streets of Venezuela, ordinary citizens are starving and tired of the political turmoil.
"They couldn't care less ... because they need to eat," he says. "The only conversations people have — be they rich or poor or whatever class, whatever education — is what they found at the supermarket last time they went, how long they waited in line."
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