Venezuela crisis: Bus drivers bring chaos to Caracas

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Drivers block a main avenue in Caracas during a protest due to the shortage of spare parts for their vehicles on 21 SeptemberImage source, AFP
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Streets in Caracas were blocked by striking drivers

Bus drivers in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, paralysed the city for eight hours on Wednesday by blocking the streets with their vehicles to protest against the country's economic crisis.

Hundreds of drivers demanded more pay and protection from violent crime.

Many said they needed more money to maintain their buses and complained of a scarcity of spare parts.

Meanwhile, the electoral council all but ruled out a recall referendum this year against President Nicolas Maduro.

The decision is a setback for the opposition, which has been pressing for a vote to oust him this year.

Timing is key

The timing of the recall referendum is crucial as it will determine what happens next.

Image source, Reuters
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Opposition leaders want a recall referendum to be held this year

If it should go against the president before 10 January, new elections will be held, which the opposition hopes to win.

But if it is held after that date and Mr Maduro is recalled, his loyal vice-president will serve out the end of his term until 2019.

The opposition has accused the National Electoral Council (CNE), which it says is stacked with supporters of Mr Maduro, of doing everything it can to delay the referendum.

Late on Wednesday, the CNE announced that the referendum "could take place halfway through the first quarter of 2017", meaning that even if Mr Maduro were to lose, his socialist party would stay in power.

It also stipulated that the opposition would have to collect the signatures of 20% of voters in each and every state of Venezuela - rather than just meeting that threshold nationwide - in order for the referendum to go ahead.

The signatures will have to be collected within three days from 26 to 28 October, the CNE said.

It also said that only 5,392 fingerprinting machines would be provided for voters' identities to be verified.

The opposition had requested almost 20,000.

The MUD opposition coalition called an emergency meeting to define its new strategy in light of the CNE's announcement.

Its spokesman, Jesus Torrealba, remained defiant.

"This is nothing but an admission from the government that it has nothing to offer the Venezuelan people at the polls," he said.

He said millions of Venezuelans would mobilise to drive Mr Maduro from office.

Image source, AFP
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The strike by the bus drivers is the latest in a series of protests in Caracas
Image source, EPA
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The drivers said there was a lack of security and that they could not get spare parts for their vehicles

A spokesman for the bus drivers said they would continue their protest on Thursday if the government did not respond to their complaints.

Analysts say their protest is a particular embarrassment for President Maduro, not just because it paralysed parts of the capital for eight hours, but also because Mr Maduro was himself a bus driver once.