Venezuela crisis: loyalist assembly inaugurated amid Vatican criticism

Nicolás Maduro installs body despite condemnation from dozens of countries, as opposition plans new protest: ‘We will take the streets to fight for freedom’

The threat of confrontation mounted in Venezuela as president Nicolás Maduro, installed a controversial new assembly despite overwhelming international condemnation and a planned opposition protest.

The Vatican became the latest of dozens of states to reject the new assembly, which it said “create[s] a climate of tension and conflict” in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

Despite the Vatican’s strongly worded statement, a Catholic priest gave his blessing at the inauguration on Friday of the body, which will have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.

The former foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez, who was named the assembly’s president, declared that the body rejected “foreign interference” in Venezuela.

The 545-member body is made up entirely of pro-government loyalists after the opposition boycotted last Sunday’s vote as an unconstitutional attempt by Maduro to strengthen his grip on power. The vote has also come under question amid allegations of fraud and vote rigging, which election officials and the government have rejected as part of an international campaign to attack the president.

In an us-against-them themed speech, Rodriguez said “violent fascists who are waging economic war on the people” would face justice.

“President Maduro: we are not going to leave you alone,” Rodriguez said before the assembly members, some dressed in the colorful outfits of Venezuela’s indigenous tribes.

Adding to already high tensions, the new super-body hold sessions in a chamber of the Legislative Palace in Caracas, where the opposition-controlled parliament normally convenes.

The opposition coalition, known by its Spanish initials as MUD, has called for critics of the government to march in the capital, heightening the probability of violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

Nicolas Maduro supporters demonstrate outside the Legislative Palace during the assembly’s first session, in Caracas.
Nicolás Maduro supporters, carrying an image of Hugo Chávez, demonstrate outside the Legislative Palace during the assembly’s first session. Photograph: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

More than 125 people have been killed in four months of protests against Maduro’s government, which the opposition sees as increasingly authoritarian and repressive.

More than 5,000 people have been detained by security forces, and 1,389 remain in custody, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group.

Hundreds of civilian protesters have been put on trial in military courts – a practice denounced on Friday by a group of United Nations experts.

“The government of Venezuela must stop systematically detaining protesters and end the growing use of military tribunals to try civilians,” the group of five experts said in a statement.

The Vatican – which has previously acted as a mediator between the government and opposition – also appealed on Friday for Venezuelan security forces to show restraint.

Maduro has said the assembly will strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, while members of congress say they will only be removed by force.

“We will go out and take the streets to fight for freedom,” said Julio Borges, head of the national assembly, the country’s unicameral parliament, where the opposition won control in 2015 elections after it was run for years by the ruling Socialist party. “We will not stop until we achieve it,” he said.

On Friday, government loyalists marched to the Capitol building with portraits of Chávez, whose images we removed from parliament when the opposition won control.

In a surprise reversal, security forces transferred the Caracas mayor, Antonio Ledezma, from jail to house arrest, just days after they whisked him out of his home in his pyjamas in a midnight raid.

“Several minutes ago, Antonio was unexpectedly returned by the Sebin [intelligence agency] to our home,” Ledezma’s wife, Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, wrote on her husband’s Twitter account.

“We thank the people of Venezuela and the international community for their concern and solidarity.”

Another opposition figure, Leopoldo López, also taken on Tuesday from his home, apparently remains in prison. His wife, Lilian Tintori, said his lawyers had not been allowed to see him. “We don’t know how he is,” she tweeted on Thursday.

Maduro was chosen by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, to continue Chávez’s socialist policies after the former leader’s death in 2013. Maduro has presided over the oil-rich country’s worst economic and political crisis in recent history. He has said the country is the victim of an economic war led by the “international right wing” while the opposition blames Venezuela’s misfortunes on poor management and rampant corruption.

Last week, the US imposed targeted sanctions on Maduro – whom Trump has called a “dictator” – and more than a dozen of his close allies, freezing any US assets they might have.

Although the sanctions are not meant to affect the Venezuelan people, the economist and pollster Luis Vicente León warned that the effects of the political instability would hit the average citizen hard.

“Times of never-before-seen scarcity are coming,” he said in a statement in which he called on Venezuelans to prepare.

The country’s currency, the bolivar, lost more than 17% of its value against the dollar on Thursday, placing scarce imported food and medicine further out of reach for many Venezuelans.

More than 40 countries have said they will not recognize the assembly. On the eve of its installation, the Spanish embassy in Caracas was attacked with petrol bombs.

Prosecutors said two individuals on a motorcycle launched the devices, which started a fire but caused no reported injuries. Spain has been pressing the EU to impose sanctions on Venezuela but the European bloc has so far held off, although it condemned the assembly election.

The opposition has consistently called the vote a fraud, and it was backed up by Smartmatic, a British-based company involved in the vote technology behind the election last Sunday, which sad that “without a doubt” the official turnout figure had been tampered with and exaggerated by at least a million voters.

The attorney general, Luisa Ortega – once loyal to the government, but now one of Maduro’s most high-profile critics – ordered an investigation, saying prosecutors had lodged court cases seeking to have the constituent assembly annulled, though few in Venezuela believed that would be achieved.


Sibylla Brodzinsky and agencies in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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