Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro holds a copy of the constitution while he speaks. (Handout/Reuters)

Government opponents are begging Venezuelans to sit out a vote on Sunday for what they see as a puppet congress and the last step toward dictatorship in this South American country. But José, a Caracas bus driver, said he and other public transit employees were given an ultimatum by their bosses. 

Turn out and vote for the new congress, in an election in which nearly every candidate is a supporter of President Nicolás Maduro.

Or else.

“They’re obliging us to vote,” said the young father of two, who declined to give his last name, fearing repercussions. “If not, they’ll fire us, and what are we going to do without a job?” 

Venezuela is not yet the kind of dictatorship that once proliferated in Latin America — with rulers who “disappeared” opponents, banned books and movies, and ran mass torture centers. Government pressure and violence against journalists have drastically curbed the press, but digital media outlets thrive. Hundreds of political prisoners are in jail, according to human rights groups, but opposition leaders continue to forcefully speak out. This month, the government allowed one major critic — Leopoldo López, the former mayor of Caracas — to exchange his jail cell for house arrest.

Yet on Sunday, critics say, an authoritarian system long in the making will be formalized, reviving memories of an era that the region had hoped was over. In defiance of international warnings, the socialist government is pushing forward with a vote to elect a constituent assembly that will have the authority to change the 1999 constitution, supplant the opposition-controlled legislature and potentially keep Maduro in power indefinitely.

The opposition on Thursday called for three days of massive, nationwide protests as the government showed no willingness to back down and following the slaying of seven more demonstrators in two days. Responding to the spiraling tensions, the U.S. State Department ordered the departure of family members of American staff at its embassy in Caracas. It also authorized voluntary departures for American staff, and issued a broad travel warning for U.S. citizens.

Maduro — the anointed successor of firebrand leader Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — strongly defends the new assembly, saying it will fortify what he hails as “the communal state.” While it’s unclear exactly what he is seeking in a new constitution, it would likely give more power to “communal councils” in poor neighborhoods. Leaders of those councils, critics say, are government loyalists who in practice would sideline elected politicians and win direct pipelines to government funds.

On the surface, the assembly vote, along with the government’s pseudo-Soviet speak, hark back to old-school Marxist regimes. But many here see something perhaps more sinister emerging — a 21st-century thugocracy that rules by coercion, extortion and violence.

About 100 people have died in three months of anti-government street protests. Arrests of political activists have accelerated. Bands of pro-government toughs — known as colectivos — roam poor neighborhoods, waving guns, intimidating protesters and journalists, beating opposition politicians, and warning locals to toe the government line.

More than 7 million people voted against the establishment of the new assembly in an informal referendum July 16. Opposition parties are boycotting the election.  

In a country where the government is the largest employer, state workers say they are being ordered to vote Sunday, at the risk of losing their jobs. HIV patients say officials have threatened to cut off their supplies of antiretroviral drugs if they do not turn out for the election. Families risk being scratched off government food distribution rosters for not showing up — a dire outcome in a country where a socialist experiment and economic mismanagement have sparked hyperinflation and food shortages. 

Such threats are not idle, either. Yanelis Banco, 36 years old and nearly nine months pregnant, said her boss at the government postal service called her in along with other department heads for a talk last week. He ordered them, she said, to sign a form pledging to vote Sunday. 

She and five other senior staffers refused. All of them lost their jobs, she said. 

“I’m a pregnant woman who has been working in the company for 10 years and four months, so I didn’t think they’d fire me,” she said. “Why do I have to sign if I don’t agree? I thought the law protected me!”

She added: “All the other employees are terrified. Now they’re sure that if they don’t vote, they’ll be fired. None of them can afford that.”

Maduro has acknowledged that the government is pressuring public employees to vote. At a rally with public energy workers this month, he said: “Take the lists of workers from all the state institutions and businesses to create a constituent committee. For each business, call all the workers and organize how they’ll vote on July 30th. At the end of the day, check the list. If there are 15,000 workers, there have to be 15,000 votes, with no excuses.”

Venezuela’s political protests have been fueled by the disastrous state of the economy, growing authoritarian rule and the government’s resistance to early elections. The country’s electoral council ruled against the opposition when it sought a referendum in 2016 that could have cut short Maduro’s six-year term. The council also pushed back elections for governors, scheduled for 2016, to December of this year. Critics fear that the new assembly will cancel those, as well as the presidential election in 2018.

The U.S. Treasury Department in February froze Vice President Tareck El Aissami’s American assets over his alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking and took similar action against eight justices of the pro-government supreme court after it tried to strip power from the opposition-led legislature. On Wednesday, the Trump administration targeted 13 more Venezuelan officials, alleging violations of human rights and corruption. 

Once the richest country per capita in South America due to its vast oil reserves, Venezuela was also cursed with vast disparities that kept an elite in luxury while the poor languished in slums. The result was Chávez, who used the petroleum wealth to launch massive social programs, even as he concentrated power. He remains much beloved by millions of Venezuelans, although many others — especially in the middle and upper classes — loathe him.

Maduro’s approval rating, on the other hand, is hovering around 20 percent, with opponents calling this weekend’s vote the only way for him to remain in the presidential palace.

He has promised Venezuelans that the assembly will herald a new era of security and stability.

“July 30th will be the birth of a historic trigger of the homeland for a new phase of peace and advancement,” Maduro told a campaign rally this week. 

Yet many Venezuelans fear just the opposite — a deepening of official repression. It is already starting, they say. 

Take, for instance, 51-year-old Lisbeth Añez, or “Mama Lis.” For years, she was known for aiding anti-government protesters, bringing them blankets and cooking them fresh arepas, or cornmeal cakes.

In May, she was arrested and charged with treason. 

Her case is in the hands of a military tribunal. In recent months, scores of civilians who have taken part in demonstrations or other perceived anti-government acts have been sent into the military court system, where they can face lengthy prison sentences.

“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, even if we had enough food,” said her son, Luis González Añez, 23, who said he was refused entry to her trial. “I have nightmares, thinking about her in jail . . . I didn’t think things could get worse, but they have.” 

Gabriela Ramírez, Venezuela’s former public ombudsman and a longtime Chávez supporter, said she feared the government would become worse than a dictatorship. “We will have a narco-authoritarian regime,” she said.

Ramírez, who carries around a pocket version of Chávez’s 1999 constitution in her purse, is among the ranks of former “Chavistas” — or Chávez backers — who have turned against Maduro. She has paid for it with harassment, she said, including a recent hack in which intimate photos of her and her husband were leaked on social media.

“There will no longer be any check on their power,” she said. “They will control everything.”

Following an opposition-called 48-hour strike, the government on Thursday issued a ban on public gatherings and protests lasting from Friday through Tuesday. The opposition responded by calling for nationwide mobilization, asking citizens to take to the streets from the Caribbean Sea to the Andes Mountains.

In an interview, Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader and vice president of the National Assembly, played down the chances of any deal to suspend or cancel the vote. Former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is in Caracas, and has served as an intermediary between the government and opposition. Guevara denied reports that a deal had been offered to suspend the vote.

“It is wishful thinking,” he said. “I am sure they are going forward with this scam, and that we are going to respond with pressure.”

But even leading members of the opposition appear to be losing hope that Maduro will back down. 

Scenarios for what happens next range widely. Some observers suggest that social unrest and international sanctions will worsen, prompting, perhaps, a military coup or fueling an anti-government guerrilla movement. Others say the government, likely with the aid of Russia and China, will somehow manage to hold on as the country becomes an international pariah.

Still others see a worst-case scenario of social implosion and anarchy.

“Somalia,” said Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader and governor of the state of Miranda. 

“We could become a failed state.”

Mariana Zuñiga contributed to this report.