A demonstrator looks on while clashing with riot security forces during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas
By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition sympathizers braved tear gas and rainstorms on Friday, blocking streets in protest against a legislative super-body to be elected on Sunday that critics call a plan by President Nicolas Maduro to create a dictatorship.
The imminent election of a constituent assembly has been broadly condemned by countries around the world as a weakening of democratic governance in the OPEC nation, which is also struggling under a crippling economic crisis.
Demonstrators said urgency was increasing as they set up barricades along main roads in the capital, Caracas, pelted by sheets of rain and teargas canisters fired by police.
"If this election happens on Sunday, we lose everything. We lose Venezuela," said a 23-year-old-woman who identified herself as a student, face covered against the gas, declining to give her name.
There were fewer protesters on Friday than during a two-day national strike this week. Confrontations with security forces, which have left more than 110 dead over the last four months, were relatively modest on Friday amid tropical downpours and a government ban on demonstrations.
Venezuelans have been protesting against Maduro to demand he respect the opposition-led Congress and resolve chronic food and medicine shortages that have fueled malnutrition and health problems.
(For graphics on Venezuela's economic crisis and anti-government protests see: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pPJdRb and http://tmsnrt.rs/2ujuylf)
Amid a steep recession and triple-digit inflation, the bolivar currency weakened past 10,000 bolivars per U.S. dollar on the black market on Friday, having fallen more than 99 percent since Maduro came to power in April 2013.
Maduro says the 545-member assembly, which will have the power to dissolve state institutions and rewrite the constitution, will bring peace to the convulsed country.
The opposition dismisses such promises.
"If the constituent assembly is activated there will be no way out. It will be a legalized dictatorship," an 18-year-old chef, who said high inflation has rendered his monthly paycheck virtually worthless, told Reuters, also declining to give his name.
"This protest has been urgent from the beginning, but these two days before the election will be decisive."
Countries around the world have condemned the new assembly as a blow to democracy.
The United States this week sanctioned a group of ruling Socialist Party officials amid warnings of further economic measures if the July 30 vote goes ahead, and the U.S. Embassy ordered family members of staff to leave the country.
The State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of any U.S. government employee at its embassy in Caracas.
That may have been more of an effort to pressure Maduro than to respond to the country's security situation, which has been challenging for years, said one former senior CIA official.
"It's a powerful political signal, more than a means of protecting staff," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Opposition leaders have said they will protest on Sunday, raising the specter of further violence given that the government has banned protests from Friday to Tuesday.
Adding to Venezuela's growing international isolation, Colombian airline Avianca stopped operations in the country on Thursday due to "operational and security limitations."
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Editing by W Simon and James Dalgleish)