Venezuelan assembly opens amid protests
CARACAS, Venezuela — Defying criticism from Washington to the Vatican, Venezuela’s ruling party on Friday installed a new assembly that supporters promise will pacify the country and critics fear will be a tool for imposing dictatorship.
The constituent assembly’s first order of business was selecting its leader — former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, a loyal follower of President Nicolas Maduro.
The nomination was approved unanimously by the 545 delegates, who marched to the neoclassical legislative palace led by socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello and first lady Cilia Flores and accompanied by hundreds of red-shirted government supporters carrying roses and portraits of the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor.
Some shouted, “He’s returned!” as a jab at the opposition, which had ordered images of Chavez removed from an adjacent building when it won control of the congress in 2015.
The assembly was to meet again today, and Rodriguez pledged that it would take action against Maduro’s political opponents.
“Don’t think we’re going to wait weeks, months or years,” she said. “Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you.”
The installation of the all-powerful assembly was likely intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests that left at least 120 people dead and hundreds jailed. Maduro vows the assembly will strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, while members of the congress say they will only be removed by force.
“It doesn’t matter where they meet, they’re installing a fraudulent institution,” declared Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s first vice president, at an opposition demonstration in eastern Caracas that drew a few hundred protesters, one of the smallest crowds in months.
He also tweeted Friday: “Let the world see people in rebellion while a dictator tries to install his fraud.”
The opposition coalition had called people to gather in different areas of Caracas to march toward the legislative palace. But Maduro’s opponents have shown signs of division about how to move forward and have coming under increasing fire from some anti-government Venezuelans.
“I think this is the world’s worst opposition,” said Ricardo Palm, a 29-year-old entrepreneur in eastern Caracas. “But it’s the one that we have, and we should continue following it. I will keep protesting.”
Some support has come from abroad. Several foreign governments have sided with the opposition, refusing to recognize the constituent assembly. On Friday, the Vatican urged Maduro to suspend the new body, expressing “deep worry for the radicalization and worsening” of the turmoil in Venezuela.
And foreign ministers from several South American nations said they will gather today in Brazil for an emergency meeting amid speculation they could decide to evict Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc for violating its democratic norms. Venezuela was suspended from the group in December.
The opposition boycotted Sunday’s election of the constituent 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 U.S. State Department said Thursday that the assembly was illegitimate, reiterating a call by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for Maduro to leave office or face unspecified actions to “return the government processes back to the constitution.”
The constituent assembly is made up of an array of pro-government 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 ministers who resigned their posts to join the body.
Maduro called on them to, among other things, create laws that could condemn anti-government agitators to “30 years in jail.”
Already, four government opponents have sought refuge in Chile’s Embassy in Caracas. And two judges appointed by the opposition-led National Assembly have sought refuge from the government, this time in the Panamanian Embassy and diplomatic residency in Caracas, the Panamanian government said.
“What did the opposition do on July 30?” Maduro said, referring to the date of the constituent assembly vote. “They went crazy on Twitter. Only with the tweets they published, it’s enough to send them to prison for 30 years. That’s your job, not mine anymore. To do justice in the coming days will be the job of the constituent assembly. And to eliminate the parliamentary immunity that generates impunity.”
Cabello said that in one of its first tasks, the constituent assembly plans to target the National Assembly and the chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime supporter of Chavez who recently broke with Maduro.
Ortega Diaz filed a complaint Thursday seeking a court order to block the 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. Smartmatic Chief Executive Officer Antonio Mugica said Wednesday in London that results recorded by his company’s systems and those reported by the National Electoral Council show the official turnout count of 8 million was off by at least 1 million votes. An independent poll suggested that fewer than 4 million people voted.
On Friday evening, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Venezuela to adopt measures for the protection of Ortega Diaz. It urged the government to do whatever necessary “to guarantee the life and physical integrity” of the prosecutor.
Opposition lawmakers have pledged to remain in power no matter what action is taken by the constituent assembly, raising the possibility of two governing bodies operating side by side, with 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 hold its sessions at another site.
Earlier Friday, Maduro’s government released one of two opposition leaders hauled to jail in pre-dawn raids Tuesday. Antonio Ledezma, former mayor to Caracas, was returned to house arrest, according to his wife.
But another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, remained in the Ramo Verde prison southwest of the capital.
The nation’s economy, meanwhile, teetered closer toward the abyss.
In a nation where malnutrition is soaring amid food and medical shortages, the near-worthless currency, the bolivar, has entered a free fall. Since Sunday’s election, it has shed nearly 83 percent against the dollar on the black market, doubling the cost of bread and tomatoes in less than a week.
In a supermarket in eastern Caracas, shoppers vacillated between sticker shock and despair.
“I came a week ago and saw rice for 5,700 bolivares,” said Gina Angelats, a 62-yearold retire. “I didn’t buy it because it seemed too expensive. But now it’s 18,000! This is unaffordable. … Blame the government and its socialist policies. They’ve ruined the country.”
Information for this article was contributed by Jorge Rueda, Mike Weissenstein, Christine Armario and Joshua Goodman of The Associated Press and by Mariana Zuniga, Anthony Faiola and Rachelle Krygier of The Washington Post.
Venezuelan anti-government protesters gather near a burning barricade Friday in Caracas during a demonstration against the installation of a new constituent assembly. The opposition boycotted Sunday’s election of the assembly, saying the rules were rigged.
Delcy Rodriguez (center) leads a cheer for an official photo Friday in Caracas after she was chosen as president of Venezuela’s new, all-powerful constitutional assembly.