Venezuela's Maduro vows to push ahead with new congress despite unrest

Venezuela's unpopular President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday vowed to push ahead with a new congress to rewrite the constitution, despite dissent within his own ranks and major protests in the OPEC nation convulsed by nearly two months of unrest.

In the latest sign of internal fissures, two magistrates of the pro-government Supreme Court spoke out against the planned assembly, one of them saying it was "not the solution to the crisis" and called on Maduro to "think carefully" to avoid more bloodshed.

At least 53 people have been killed as a result of unrest that began in early April. Hundreds of people have been injured in the protests, around 2,700 arrested, with 1,000 still behind bars, and 335 tried in military tribunals, according to rights groups. A spike in riots and looting have underlined risks that protests could spin out of control given widespread hunger and anger at Maduro. 

Venezuelans are scrutinizing the government and the armed forces for any further cracks as protesters take to the streets daily to demand early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate food and medicine shortages, and freedom for jailed activists. 

"Persistent and increasingly violent unrest will eventually prompt key stakeholders to abandon Maduro and negotiate a rapid transition that sets a timetable for new elections; the precise timing is impossible to predict, however," the Eurasia Group political consultancy said in a note to clients on Tuesday.  

Undeterred by opposition, Maduro on Tuesday presented the 540-member "constituent assembly" project as a cure to Venezuela's demonstrations, which he says are a U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow his government. "Votes or bullets, what do the people want?" Maduro asked a crowd of red-shirted supporters waving Venezuelan flags at the Miraflores presidential palace.

"Let's go to elections now!" he said, before detailing how the new assembly will be partially elected by votes at a municipal level and partially by different groups. 

Opposition leaders say the project is a sham designed to avoid a presidential vote slated for next year and keep Maduro in power despite his unpopularity.