Venezuela op­po­si­tion locked out

Con­sti­tu­tional body de­clares su­pe­ri­or­ity, in­vokes Chavez

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was contributed by Joshua Good­man, Fabi­ola Sanchez and Chris­tine Ar­mario of The Associated Press and by Fabi­ola Zerpa, An­drew Rosati and Matthew Bris­tow of Bloomberg News.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly took over the halls of the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled congress on Tues­day, is­su­ing a de­cree declar­ing it­self su­pe­rior to all other branches of gov­ern­ment and promi­nently dis­play­ing im­ages of the late Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez.

The order bars anti-gov­ern­ment law­mak­ers in the congress from tak­ing any ac­tion that would in­ter­fere with the laws passed by the newly in­stalled as­sem­bly, Delcy Ro­driguez, the group’s leader, de­clared to unan­i­mous ap­proval.

“We are not threat­en­ing any­one,” said Aris­to­b­ulo Is­turiz, the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly’s first vice pres­i­dent. “We are look­ing for ways to co­ex­ist.”

Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro sum­moned the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly in what he con­tends is an at­tempt to re­solve the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal stand­off, but op­po­si­tion lead­ers in­sist it is a power grab. Since its in­stal­la­tion Fri­day, the as­sem­bly has al­ready ousted the na­tion’s chief pros­e­cu­tor, es­tab­lished a “truth com­mis­sion” ex­pected to tar­get Maduro’s foes and passed de­crees pledg­ing “sup­port and sol­i­dar­ity” with the pres­i­dent.

The truth com­mis­sion will func­tion more as a tri­bunal than a venue that of­fers amnesty in re­turn for heal­ing tes­ti­mony, the gov­ern­ment has said. “The truth com­mis­sion can try any­one,” Maduro said this week.

In coun­tries such as South Africa and Rwanda, such truth pan­els have al­lowed per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence to con­fess their crimes in re­turn for amnesty. The idea of those pan­els was to es­tab­lish a base line of truth and ex­tin­guish deadly po­lit­i­cal pas­sions. In Venezuela, for­give­ness so far is not on of­fer.

“It’s the truth of only one sec­tor,” said Car­los Ber­rizbeitia, an op­po­si­tion law­maker. “Surely they will use this to con­tinue to per­se­cute and threaten.”

The newly em­pow­ered com­mis­sion has ex­isted in other forms for sev­eral years. Af­ter the fail­ure of talks with the op­po­si­tion last year, the gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished a com­mis­sion in the ex­ec­u­tive branch to in­ves­ti­gate vi­o­lence af­ter a 2002 coup at­tempt. In May, Maduro widened its pow­ers to in­ves­ti­gate po­lit­i­cal at­tacks in 2017, most of them aimed at his gov­ern­ment. Now, the com­mis­sion will op­er­ate un­der the aegis of the new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly with its un­tram­meled pow­ers.

Dios­dado Ca­bello, a po­lit­i­cal strong­man, mem­ber of the new as­sem­bly and sup­porter of Maduro, said this week that the truth com­mis­sion would be an in­stru­ment to ad­vance the rul­ing party’s goals.

“We’re ask­ing of the Jus­tice and Truth Com­mis­sion that any­one who has acted against the fa­ther­land be stripped of public du­ties,” he said, us­ing the for­mal name of the com­mis­sion.

Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers said Tues­day that they were barred from en­ter­ing the gold-domed leg­isla­tive palace af­ter se­cu­rity forces led by Ro­driguez broke into the congress late Mon­day.

“This gov­ern­ment in­vades the spa­ces that it is not ca­pa­ble of le­git­i­mately win­ning,” Stalin Gon­za­lez, an op­po­si­tion law­maker, wrote on Twit­ter of the as­sem­bly’s takeover of the cham­ber the op­po­si­tion has con­trolled since win­ning 2015 elec­tions.

Ear­lier Tues­day, Venezuela’s pro-gov­ern­ment Supreme Court sen­tenced a Caracas-area mayor at the cen­ter of re­cent protests to 15 months in prison for not fol­low­ing an order to re­move bar­ri­cades set up dur­ing anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions.

Ra­mon Mucha­cho is the fourth op­po­si­tion mayor whose ar­rest the high court has sought in the past two weeks. The court also or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into an­other prom­i­nent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolan­sky, on the same ac­cu­sa­tions.

Mucha­cho’s where­abouts were not im­me­di­ately known, but he de­nounced the rul­ing on Twit­ter, say­ing that “all of the weight of the revo­lu­tion­ary in­jus­tice has fallen on my shoul­ders” for merely act­ing to guar­an­tee the con­sti­tu­tional right to protest.

The con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly’s meet­ing Tues­day came as crit­i­cism mounted from for­eign gov­ern­ments that have re­fused to rec­og­nize the new su­per-body.

More than a dozen Latin Amer­i­can lead­ers were gath­er­ing in Peru to dis­cuss how to force Maduro to back down. Peru’s pres­i­dent has been vo­cal in re­ject­ing the new Venezue­lan as­sem­bly, but the re­gion has had trou­ble agree­ing on col­lec­tive ac­tions.

In re­sponse, Maduro con­vened a meet­ing of for­eign min­is­ters from the Bo­li­var­ian Al­liance, a left­ist coali­tion of 11 Latin Amer­i­can na­tions.

Venezue­lan For­eign Min­is­ter Jorge Ar­reaza told rep­re­sen­ta­tives from na­tions in­clud­ing Cuba and Bo­livia on Tues­day that long-stand­ing U.S. ag­gres­sions against the South Amer­i­can na­tion have “en­tered a much stronger phase.”

Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers have vowed to hold on to their only gov­ern­ment foothold — the coun­try’s sin­gle-cham­ber congress — de­spite threats from the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly to strip them of any au­thor­ity and lock up key lead­ers. Law­mak­ers voted unan­i­mously Mon­day not to rec­og­nize any of the new as­sem­bly’s de­crees.

Since the elec­tion, in which the turnout count has been dis­puted, se­cu­rity forces have stepped up their pres­ence. A U.N. hu­man-rights com­mis­sioner re­port 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 Tues­day in Caracas to show their op­po­si­tion to the new as­sem­bly.

Protests that drew hun­dreds of thou­sands at their peak have drawn fewer peo­ple as fear and res­ig­na­tion creep in. At least 124 peo­ple have been killed and hun­dreds more in­jured or de­tained dur­ing the protests.

AP/ARIANA CUBILLOS

Con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly del­e­gate Car­men Me­len­dez speaks dur­ing a ses­sion Tues­day in Caracas, Venezuela. It was the first such ses­sion held in the cham­ber where the congress nor­mally meets.

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