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Pressure Escalates On Maduro, As Venezuela Slides Further Into Turmoil

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start the program in Venezuela, where critics say the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro has taken a sharp turn towards authoritarianism by halting a recall election designed to remove Maduro from office. In a few minutes, we'll talk to a man who was just released from a four-month stint in prison that began when he was found with recall petitions in his car, but first, the latest news from reporter John Otis.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans want to see President Maduro go. Elected in 2013, Maduro has been unable to pull the country out of a downward economic spiral that's produced critical food shortages and the world's highest inflation rate. So in February, opposition leaders began organizing a recall referendum to cut short Maduro's term, which ends in 2019.

It would also have opened the door for the opposition to take power for the first time since the late Hugo Chavez launched Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999. Charles Shapiro is a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.

CHARLES SHAPIRO: The referendum provided an escape valve for all those tensions. Now they've sealed that off.

OTIS: That's because Venezuela's National Electoral Council, which is stacked with Maduro's allies, has suspended the recall effort. Without providing evidence, it said opposition politicians had engaged in fraud as they gathered signatures to trigger the recall. The move follows the government's decision to postpone gubernatorial elections until next year. In addition, prominent opposition leaders have been jailed while Congress, the only branch of government in opposition hands, has been stripped of most of its functions.

Harold Trinkunas is a Venezuela expert at Stanford University. He says the Maduro government shed any of its remaining democratic credentials by canceling the recall.

HAROLD TRINKUNAS: This is basically a very significant step towards outright authoritarianism in Venezuela. Basically, they're saying that they are not willing to give up power through constitutional means.

OTIS: With their electoral options gone, opposition leaders like former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles are calling for street protests to keep the pressure on Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Trinkunas fears that could lead to chaos and bloodshed.

TRINKUNAS: This is opens the door to wildcard situations where some sort of unexpected fierce popular protest becomes the basis for a very unpredictable and possibly violent outcome in Venezuela.

OTIS: The last time anti-government protests rocked Venezuela in 2014, more than 40 people were killed. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.