Venezue­lan as­sem­bly opens amid protests

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - JORGE RUEDA

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.”

OP­PO­SI­TION SPLIT

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.”

PROSE­CU­TOR TAR­GETED

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.

AP/WIL RI­ERA

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.

AP/ARI­ANA CUBILLOS

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.

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