Venezuela's angry opposition called for a boycott of an upcoming vote to elect a special 500-plus-member assembly to rewrite the 1999 constitution, which it dismisses as a ploy by President Nicolas Maduro to cling to power on Sunday.
Ahead of next Sunday's vote, the opposition plans a general strike – the second in weeks – on Wednesday and Thursday and a big protest march on Friday.
It all makes for a dramatic week in the opposition's dogged drive to unseat the socialist Maduro, whom it blames for an acute economic crisis marked by shortages of food, medicine and such basics as soap and toilet paper.
Four months of almost daily street protests in this oil-rich OPEC member have left 103 people dead.
"Let them lock us all up. The fight must move forward," said Freddy Guevara, the deputy speaker of the opposition-controlled congress.
"The people of Venezuela must fuel the general strike. They must come to Caracas and help us prepare for the civic boycott," Guevara told a news conference. He insisted his supporters will not resort to violence.
Next Sunday's vote is supposed to be for a 545-seat constituent assembly that will draw its members not from political parties but rather social sectors that the opposition sees as loyal to Maduro, a former bus driver who was the handpicked successor of late Hugo Chavez.
Maduro on Sunday urged the opposition to refrain from violence, respect the voting and let those who wish to cast ballots do so.
"I demand this of all the opposition leaders," Maduro told state TV.
Looking for free elections
Opponents are boycotting the Constituent Assembly vote, which they see as a farce designed to ensure a majority for a government with minority popular support, and demanding instead conventional free elections including for a new president.
The European Union and major Latin American nations have also stated their opposition to the constituent body, which will have power to rewrite Venezuela's 1999 constitution and override other institutions.
"We need the support of other democracies to avoid turning into another Cuba," said Julio Borges, who leads the opposition-led National Assembly legislature that officials say will be replaced by Maduro's new constituent body.
Long drawn out unrest
More than 100 people have died in four months of anti-government unrest. Hundreds have also been injured and arrested.
Venezuela's political showdown is playing out against the backdrop of a crippling economic crisis, with many going hungry and suffering shortages during a fourth year of deep recession.
In his lengthy TV show, Maduro urged the opposition to let Venezuelans vote in peace next Sunday, but also said special election centres would be set up to accommodate those blocked by "fascists" at their local vote point.
Transport would be provided free to maximise turnout, Maduro added, dressed in a red shirt and dancing with his wife to publicity jingles for the Constituent Assembly vote.
"They have not toppled me nor will they topple me," he said.