The UN has criticized Venezuela for refusing to issue a visa to any representative from the organization in the region, raising concerns in particular over allegations of repression of opposition voices and civil society groups in the country
Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan police blocked a march Wednesday by opposition protesters demanding a referendum on removing President Nicolas Maduro, a prospect looking less likely as the leftist government digs in its heels.
Some 200 police blocked hundreds of opposition demonstrators shouting "Recall now" as they tried to march on the headquarters of the National Electoral Council (CNE) in Caracas.
There were no clashes, but the muscular police response lay bare the tension gripping the country as it lurches through an economic crisis that is causing severe food shortages and hyperinflation.
"The government is desperate. They're afraid of the people's vote. They'll use every trick they can" to avoid a recall, said the speaker of the opposition-majority legislature, Henry Ramos Allup.
The opposition has been hoping pressure from Venezuelans fed up with recession, shortages and mounting chaos will force the government to allow a referendum on Maduro.
But the leftist leader's camp made clear it was not going without a fight on Tuesday, when it asked the electoral authority to ban the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
The move came just as the opposition was hoping to get a green light to proceed to the next stage of the lengthy referendum process.
A top Maduro aide instead accused the opposition of committing "gigantic fraud" by allegedly including the names of thousands of dead people, convicts and minors in a petition submitted in May with 1.8 million signatures requesting a recall vote.
Electoral law expert Eugenio Martinez said the allegations had "no practical substance."
"But they could be useful (to Maduro's camp) as a political strategy to delay the recall referendum process. The deadlines are starting to get dangerously close," he told AFP.
Maduro's opponents are racing to force a recall vote by January 10, the cutoff to trigger new elections.
After that date -- four years into the president's six-year term -- a successful recall vote would simply transfer power to Maduro's hand-picked vice president.
Tuesday was the final day for electoral authorities to rule whether the opposition successfully collected at least 200,000 valid signatures, the first stage of the process.
But the CNE said it would only meet Monday to examine its auditors' report on the petition.
It did not say when it would announce its ruling.
- 'Pressure cooker' -
MUD, a fractious center-right coalition, has struggled to rally mass demonstrations.
Security fears and the opposition's own internal divisions have likely kept many Venezuelans away, along with the fact that many are too busy standing in line for scarce food and basic goods.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that opposition supporters have been arrested and tortured for protesting.
At least 21 have been arrested since May, and most were brutally beaten, given electric shocks or otherwise abused, the rights group said.
Opposition leaders warn the country could erupt in violence if Maduro refuses to allow a recall vote in line with the constitution.
"Venezuela is a pressure cooker, a volcano. And the government is doing nothing," said opposition lawmaker Julio Borges.
Venezuela has sunk into crisis as global prices for its main export, oil, have collapsed.
The economy is facing its third year of deep recession this year.
- Maduro fighting to survive -
A recent poll found 64 percent of Venezuelans would vote to remove Maduro, who has declared a state of emergency and given his military sweeping powers over food production and distribution.
But even if electoral authorities validate the initial recall petition, the opposition will still have to collect another four million signatures in just three days.
To win the ensuing recall referendum, Maduro's opponents would need more votes than he won with in 2013 -- around 7.5 million.
Venezuela's economic tailspin is threatening 17 years of socialist rule under Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The opposition's referendum push comes after it won legislative elections in December, only to find its power stymied by the Supreme Court.
Maduro's opponents allege he controls both the high court and the electoral authority.