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Venezuela’s new assembly declares itself all-powerful

August 09, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The new constitutional assembly assumed even more power in Venezuela by declaring itself as the superior body to all other governmental institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

That decree came Tuesday just hours after the assembly delegates took control of a legislative chamber and put up pictures of the late President Hugo Chavez, who installed Venezuela’s socialist system.

Delcy Rodriguez, the head of the ruling socialist party and leader of the body, said the unanimously approved decree prohibits lawmakers in congress from taking any action that would interfere with laws passed by the newly installed constitutional assembly.

“We are not threatening anyone,” said Aristobulo Isturiz, the constitutional assembly’s first vice president. “We are looking for ways to coexist.” Leaders of congress, which previously voted not to recognize any of the new super-body’s decrees, said lawmakers would try to meet in the gold-domed legislative palace Wednesday, but there were questions whether security officers guarding the building would let them in.

The opposition to President Nicolas Maduro also faced another fight Wednesday before the government-stacked Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing on charges against a Caracas-area opposition mayor. The judges convicted another mayor Tuesday for failing to move against protesters during four months of political unrest.

In calling the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, Maduro said a new constitution would help resolve the nation’s political standoff, but opposition leaders view it is a power grab and the president’s allies have said they will go after his opponents. Before its decree declaring itself all-powerful, the assembly ousted Venezuela’s outspoken chief prosecutor, established a “truth commission” expected to target Maduro’s foes and pledged “support and solidarity” with the unpopular president.

The latest surge of protests began in early April in reaction to a quickly rescinded attempt by the government-supporting Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly of its powers. But the unrest ballooned into a widespread movement fed by anger over Venezuela’s triple-digest inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and high crime.

Opposition lawmakers said security forces led by Rodriguez broke into the congress building late Monday and seized control of an unused, ceremonial chamber almost identical to the one where lawmakers meet.

“This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning,” Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter, alluding to the opposition’s overwhelming victory in the 2015 congressional elections.

Before the assembly met Tuesday, the pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations.

Ramon Muchacho was the fourth opposition mayor ordered arrested by the high court the past two weeks. His whereabouts were not known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter. The constitutional assembly’s meeting Tuesday came amid mounting criticism from foreign governments that have refused to recognize the new body.

The foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru to discuss how to force Maduro to back down. The ministers issued a statement after the meeting condemning the body and reiterating previous calls for the parties in Venezuela to negotiate on ending the political crisis.

Meanwhile, leaders from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations, met in Caracas and declared the creation of the constitutional assembly a “sovereign act” aimed at helping Venezuela overcome its difficulties.

“We reiterate the call for a constructive and respectful dialogue,” the alliance said in a statement read after the meeting. Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. A U.N. human rights commissioner report issued Tuesday warned of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.

Only a few dozen demonstrators heeded the opposition’s call to set up traffic-snarling roadblocks in Caracas on Tuesday to show opposition to the new assembly, underlining the fear and resignation among that has weakened turnout for street protests that once drew hundreds of thousands. At least 124 people have been killed and hundreds injured or detained during the protests.

Powerful Venezuela assembly meets again as pressure mounts

August 08, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Foreign ministers from 14 nations are meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis, while President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.

The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew condemnation from many of the same regional government that are sending representatives to the meeting in Peru’s capital.

Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.

Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the constitutional assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

The new constitutional assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.

“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, vowed to remain in their posts in their only government foothold — the country’s single-chamber congress, the National Assembly. John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro’s administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.

The opposition-dominated National Assembly “will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,” Magdaleno said. National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers Monday that they should keep an active presence in the legislative palace despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the “symbol of popular sovereignty.”

“We are a testament to the fight for democracy,” he said. “It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.” In theory, both the National Assembly and the constitutional assembly could operate simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election has the authority to trump any other branch of government — and Venezuela’s leaders have promised to do just that.

National Assembly members voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super body’s decrees. “The intent is to pursue those who think differently,” lawmaker Delsa Solorzano said of the constitutional assembly’s plans.

Cabello said that the new assembly’s decisions have all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chavez and that the new assembly would be in power for “at least two years.”

“This is a completely legal process,” he said. The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether they will take part in regional elections scheduled for December. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week. Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on taking part in the contests for governors.

While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.

On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks’ weapons supply. Ten escaped, but two were killed and the remaining eight were captured after battling with soldiers for three hours, Maduro said.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said special units were being activated Monday to assist in the search for the escapees, who remained at large more than 24 hours after the attack.

Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.

Maduro vows ‘maximum penalty’ for attack on Venezuela base

August 07, 2017

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro vowed that a band of anti-government fighters who attacked a Venezuelan army base will get the “maximum penalty” as his administration roots out his enemies.

Troops killed two of the 20 intruders who slipped into the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia early Sunday, apparently intent on fomenting a military uprising, Maduro said in his weekly broadcast on state television.

One of the invaders was injured, seven captured and 10 got away, the embattled leader said. “We know where they are headed and all of our military and police force is deployed,” Maduro said. He said he would ask for “the maximum penalty for those who participated in this terrorist attack.”

The attack came as Venezuela’s controversial constitutional assembly is getting down to work, signaling in its initial decrees last week that delegates will target Maduro’s foes as he had warned. The new assembly, whose powers supersede all other branches of government, voted to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor Saturday. On Sunday, Maduro announced that a new “truth commission” created by the assembly had been installed to impose justice on those fueling the unrest that has wracked the country since early April.

The constitutional assembly is expected to meet again Tuesday, while lawmakers in the opposition-controlled National Assembly scheduled their own session for Monday, vowing to continue fulfilling their responsibilities no matter what the assembly might do. Leaders of opposition groups, which boycotted the July 30 assembly election, called for renewed protests on Monday, though turnout at demonstrations has been sparse in recent days.

Residents who live near the army base in Valencia attacked Sunday said they began hearing bursts of gunfire around 4:30 a.m. A video showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, some carrying rifles, began circulating widely on social media around that time. In the recording, a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said the men were members of the military who oppose Maduro’s socialist government and called on military units to declare themselves in open rebellion.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” the man said. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order.” Maduro said 20 men entered the base and managed to reach the weapons depot undetected, but then an alarm sounded alerting troops to the incursion. He said 10 of the invaders fled, some carrying off arms, while those left behind exchanged gunfire with soldiers until about 8 a.m. before all were either killed or captured.

“Today we had to defeat terrorism with bullets,” Maduro said. Nearby residents who saw the dissident group’s video online gathered around the military base chanting “Freedom!” Other protests also emerged around Valencia into the afternoon. Troops dispersed protesters with tear gas and a man was fatally shot at a demonstration less than a mile from the base, said Haydee Franco, coordinating secretary of the opposition Progressive Advance party.

More than 120 people have been reported killed in four months of unrest that has been fueled by anger at the socialist government over food shortages, soaring inflation and high crime. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez characterized the attackers as a “paramilitary” expedition, saying the intruders were civilians dressed in uniforms. He did not identify any of the participants, but said they included a lieutenant who had abandoned his post. He said the man who recorded the video was a former officer dismissed three years ago after being charged with rebellion and betraying the homeland.

In 2014, Caguaripano released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro during a previous wave of anti-government unrest. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to what he said was discontent within military ranks.

Venezuela’s latest bout of political unrest erupted in protest to a Supreme Court decision in late March ordering the National Assembly dissolved. Although the order was quickly lifted, near-daily demonstrations snowballed into a general protest calling for a new presidential election.

Opposition leaders have urged the military, which historically has served as an arbiter of Venezuela’s political disputes, to break with Maduro over what his foes consider violations of the constitution. But the president is believed to still have the military’s support.

Like Sunday’s uprising, most manifestations of dissent among troops have been small and isolated so far. “It’s still very hard to know to what extent there are significant divisions within the military,” Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said recently.

Venezuela official: Military quashes attack at base

August 06, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Ruling party chief Diosdado Cabello said Venezuelan troops quashed a “terrorist” attack at a military base Sunday, shortly after a small group of men dressed in fatigues released a video declaring themselves in rebellion.

Cabello reported on Twitter that troops quickly contained the early morning assault at the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia. Military officials said seven people were detained. The announcement came after the group of men, some armed with assault rifles, announced they were disavowing the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro and said any unit refusing to go along with their call for rebellion would be declared a military target.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said in the video. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order.” Cabello, a former military man and vice president under the late President Hugo Chavez, called the attackers “mercenary terrorists.” Socialist party loyalists also regularly use the term “terrorist” to describe opposition leaders and protesters.

The South American nation has for months been in the throes of a political crisis with protests that have left more than 120 dead, nearly 2,000 wounded and over 500 detained. The political standoff heightened this week with the installation of an all-powerful constitutional assembly that opposition members fear Maduro will use to tighten his grip on power, install a one-party state and remove foes from office.

Caguaripano, the leader of the alleged plot, has a history of rebellion. In 2014, while a captain in the national guard and amid a previous wave of anti-government unrest, he released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to dissatisfaction within the ranks over Venezuela’s demise.

He returned to Venezuela to lead Sunday’s uprising, said Giomar Flores, a mutinous naval officer who said he is a spokesman for the group from Bogota, Colombia. Videos circulating on social media showed a police convoy speeding down a road amid the sound of apparent gunfire.

The Paramacay base, surrounded by a residential neighborhood in Valencia, is one of Venezuela’s largest and houses some of the country’s most important armaments including Russian-made tanks. Cabello is the first vice president of the ruling socialist party and a member of the constitutional assembly. He has been a vocal proponent of using the legislative super-body to strip lawmakers in the opposition-controlled National Assembly of the immunity from prosecution that comes with office.

While in the military he took part in a failed 1992 coup led by Chavez, and he has held various high-ranking positions in the government. U.S. officials have accused him of involvement in drug trafficking, a charge he denies.

On Twitter Sunday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the fact that Cabello had announced the news of the attack “shows who’s in charge of security forces” in Venezuela. Maduro is widely considered to still have the backing of the military, though it is difficult to know whether any discord may be brewing among the rank and file.

The rebellion took place a day after the constitutional assembly voted unanimously to remove the nation’s chief prosecutor, a longtime government loyalist who has become one of Maduro’s most outspoken critics. Delegates shouted “traitor” and “justice” as they proceeded with her removal.

Luisa Ortega refused to recognize the decision to oust her and vowed to continue fighting “with my last breath” against what she considers unconstitutional overreach by the government. The assembly later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.

Also Saturday prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned home to serve his sentence under house arrest, days after being hauled back to prison in the middle of the night in a move that drew international condemnation.

The activist’s wife Lilian Tintori said in a message on Twitter that she and her husband remained committed to achieving “peace and freedom for Venezuela.” Lopez was released from prison July 8 and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. Many human rights groups considered him a political prisoner.

But he was taken back into custody last Tuesday along with former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in what many believed was a renewed crackdown on the opposition following the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuela constitutional assembly removes chief prosecutor

August 06, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A newly installed constitutional assembly ousted Venezuela’s defiant chief prosecutor Saturday, a sign that President Nicolas Maduro’s embattled government intends to move swiftly against critics and consolidate power amid a fast-moving political crisis.

Cries of “traitor” and “justice” erupted from the stately, neo-classical salon where 545 pro-government delegates voted unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.

They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts while it weighs criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.

Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognize the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath.”

“This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government,” Ortega said in the statement she signed as chief prosecutor. “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”

Earlier Saturday, Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building. She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.

Even as the all-powerful constitutional assembly moved quickly against Ortega, there were signs it may be rethinking about extending its crackdown. Late Saturday, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned to house arrest after being taken into custody in the middle of the night Tuesday. Lopez was released from prison last month and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. He returned home again Saturday.

The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the United States, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear that it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.

Its installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed. Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him shouldn’t be protected.

While members of congress say they will only be removed by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.

Several opposition activists have been jailed in recent days, others are rumored to be seeking exile and one leader has broken ranks from the opposition alliance to say his party will field candidates in regional elections despite widespread distrust of the electoral system.

In a sign of its cowed, demoralized state, only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of arrest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “political prisoners” jailed during the protests — may be keeping people at home but urged Venezuelans to remain mobilized.

“We shouldn’t think the government is winning,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled congress, making an emotional plea for Maduro’s opponents to remain on the streets and capitalize on the government’s increasing international isolation. “The only thing it’s doing is destroying itself and committing suicide.”

President Juan Manuel Santos of neighboring Colombia called Saturday’s removal of Luisa Ortega “the first dictatorial act” of an “illegitimate” assembly and vowed solidarity with the Venezuelan people. On Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.

Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the removal of Ortega an attempt to tighten the “authoritarian dictatorship” of Maduro and said her government applauded the action by Mercosur.

Maduro responded by calling Mercosur’s move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves. “They come walking down the middle of the street barking orders, treating rulers like their maids,” Maduro told Argentina’s Radio Rebelde in an interview.

The opposition boycotted the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, saying the rules were rigged to further entrench Maduro’s “dictatorship.” The results have come under mounting scrutiny after the international company that provided the electronic voting machines said that “without any doubt” the official turnout had been tampered with — a charge dismissed by Maduro and the National Electoral Council.

The constitutional assembly is made up of delegates from an array of pro-government sectors such as trade unionists, students and even representatives of Venezuelans with physical disabilities. But the agenda is expected to be set by bigger-name loyalists, including Maduro’s wife, son and several Cabinet ministers who resigned to join the body.

It will have sweeping powers to upend institutions and in theory could even remove Maduro, a fact held up by government supporters as a sign of its independence.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Alba Tobella in Bogota and Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

Venezuelan opposition leader Lopez back under house arrest

August 06, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was returned home to serve his sentence under house arrest, days after being hauled back to prison in the middle of the night in a move that drew international condemnation.

The activist’s wife Lilian Tintori said in a message on Twitter late Saturday that she and her husband remained committed to achieving “peace and freedom for Venezuela.” Lopez was released from prison on July 8 and placed under house arrest after serving three years of a 13-year sentence on charges of inciting violence at opposition rallies. Many human rights groups considered him a political prisoner.

But he was taken back into custody last Tuesday along with former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma in what many believed was a renewed crackdown on the opposition following the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly.

Some saw his return home as a sign Venezuelan officials may be rethinking the crackdown, even as the new, all-powerful constitutional assembly ousted the defiant chief prosecutor. Cries of “traitor” and “justice” erupted as the 545 pro-government delegates voted Saturday unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.

They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts while it weighs criminal charges against her for alleged irregularities.

Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognize the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath.”

“This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government,” Ortega said in the statement she signed as chief prosecutor. “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”

Earlier Saturday, Ortega was pushed and barred from entering her office by dozens of national guardsmen in riot gear who took control of the entrance to the building. She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Assembly delegates later swore in as her replacement Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by the Trump administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official.

The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the United States, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear that it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.

Its installation is virtually certain to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed. Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him shouldn’t be protected.

While members of congress say they will only be removed by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.

In a sign of its cowed, demoralized state, only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of arrest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “political prisoners” jailed during the protests — may be keeping people at home but urged Venezuelans to remain mobilized.

“We shouldn’t think the government is winning,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled congress, making an emotional plea for Maduro’s opponents to remain on the streets and capitalize on the government’s increasing international isolation. “The only thing it’s doing is destroying itself and committing suicide.”

President Juan Manuel Santos of neighboring Colombia called Saturday’s removal of Luisa Ortega “the first dictatorial act” of an “illegitimate” assembly and vowed solidarity with the Venezuelan people. On Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.

Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.

Maduro responded by calling Mercosur’s move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves. “They come walking down the middle of the street barking orders, treating rulers like their maids,” Maduro told Argentina’s Radio Rebelde in an interview.

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writers Alba Tobella in Bogota and Sarah DiLorenzo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

All-powerful Venezuelan assembly to open amid protests

August 04, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is heading toward a showdown with his political foes, promising to seat a new constituent assembly Friday that will rewrite the country’s constitution and hold powers that override all other government branches.

Leaders of the opposition urged Venezuelans to fill the streets of the capital Friday, hoping to provide a strong showing that many people object to the assembly. The body’s 545 delegates were expected to be installed at the legislative palace in a room just yards (meters) from the chamber where the opposition-controlled National Assembly meets. Maduro, who has said he will use the assembly to punish his opponents, planned to attend the opening session.

The legislature building has been the scene of bloody clashes in recent weeks and the installation of the all-powerful assembly will intensify a political struggle that has brought three months of bloody anti-government protests to Venezuela. Maduro vows the assembly will strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, while members of congress say they will only be removed by force.

“The only way they’ll get us out of here is by killing us,” declared Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s first vice president. “They will never have the seat that the people of Venezuela gave us.”

The opposition boycotted Sunday’s election of the constituent assembly, arguing that the rules were rigged to benefit the government, and nearly all the candidates were supporters of Maduro’s administration.

The election has come under mounting scrutiny since the CEO of an international voting technology company said that “without any doubt” the official voter turnout number had been tampered with — a charge that Maduro and the National Electoral Council have dismissed. An increasing number of foreign governments have refused to recognize the assembly and many within Venezuela fear it will create a one-party state.

“There has been a gradual erosion of democratic practice and this is a significant line that has been crossed,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “To attach the term democracy to Venezuela with this new constituent assembly is on very weak ground.”

The U.S. State Department called the assembly illegitimate Thursday, saying the election was rigged to further entrench “the Maduro dictatorship.” “The United States will not recognize the National Constituent Assembly,” spokeswoman Heath Nauert said.

On the eve of the assembly’s installation, the Spanish Embassy in Caracas was attacked with gasoline bombs. Prosecutors said two individuals on a motorcycle launched the devices, which started a fire but caused no reported injuries.

Carlos Romero, a professor and foreign relations analyst in Caracas, called the incident “extremely grave” and said it could further complicate relations between Venezuela and Madrid. Spain’s ambassador to Venezuela was among a group of legislators who visited the National Assembly on Tuesday in a show of support after the constituent assembly election.

Prominent members of the constituent assembly, such as Diosdado Cabello, the leader of the ruling socialist party, have said they plan to target the opposition-controlled congress and the country’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime supporter of the late Hugo Chavez who recently broke with Maduro. As one of its first tasks, Maduro has ordered the assembly to declare Ortega Diaz’s office in a state of emergency and entirely restructure it.

In a continuing show of defiance, Ortega Diaz filed papers Thursday seeking a court order to block installation of the new assembly. The request, filed to a lower court in an apparent attempt to circumvent the government-stacked Supreme Court, was almost certain to be denied.

She also ordered prosecutors to investigate the allegations of election tampering raised by Antonio Mugica, the head of the voting technology firm Smartmatic. Mugica told reporters in London on Wednesday that results recorded by his company’s systems and those reported by the National Electoral Council show the official turnout count was off by at least 1 million votes.

Pledges by opposition lawmakers to remain in power no matter what action the constituent assembly takes have opened the possibility of two governing bodies operating side by side — neither recognizing the other.

One opposition lawmaker, Henry Ramos Allup, said this week that if forcibly expelled from the legislative palace the National Assembly could potentially hold its sessions at another site. Despite questions surrounding the vote, Maduro all but ensured there was nothing that could stop the government from seating the new assembly.

“They are bent on plowing ahead with this power grab,” Shifter said, “and this is not going to stand in the way.”

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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