NEW AS­SEM­BLY GATH­ERS IN VENEZUELA

CARA­CAS, VENEZUELA» De­fy­ing crit­i­cism from Wash­ing­ton to the Vat­i­can, Venezuela’s rul­ing party on Fri­day in­stalled a new su­per as­sem­bly that sup­port­ers prom­ise will pacify the coun­try and crit­ics fear will be a tool for im­pos­ing dic­ta­tor­ship.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jorge Rueda The As­so­ci­ated Press

Loy­al­ists of Venezuela’s so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment launch a nearly allpow­er­ful as­sem­bly to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion — a process the gov­ern­ment says is the trou­bled coun­try’s best chance for peace and that op­po­nents fear will ce­ment a dic­ta­tor­ship.

The con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly’s first or­der of busi­ness was se­lect­ing its head — 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 neo-clas­si­cal 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 congress in 2015.

The as­sem­bly was sched­uled to meet again Satur­day, and Ro­driguez pledged it would be tak­ing 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 con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly is vir­tu­ally cer­tain to 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 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 only a few hun­dred pro­test­ers, one of the small­est in months.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of for­eign gov­ern­ments have sided with the op­po­si­tion, re­fus­ing to rec­og­nize the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly and fur­ther iso­lat­ing Maduro’s gov­ern­ment.

On Fri­day, the Vat­i­can urged Maduro to sus­pend the new body, ex­press­ing “deep worry for the rad­i­cal­iza­tion and wors­en­ing” of the tur­moil in Venezuela.

For­eign min­is­ters from sev­eral South Amer­i­can na­tions said they will gather Satur­day 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 the July 30 elec­tion of 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.

“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 said Thurs­day the as­sem­bly was il­le­git­i­mate, re­it­er­at­ing a call by Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son for Maduro to leave of­fice.

The con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly will be made up by 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.

Ca­bello said that in one of its first tasks, the as­sem­bly plans to tar­get the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled congress, known as the Na­tional As­sem­bly, and the chief prose­cu­tor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a long­time sup­porter of Chavez who re­cently broke with Maduro.

JUAN BARRETO, AFP

Amid in­ter­na­tional out­cry, mem­bers of Venezuela’s re­cently elected Con­stituent As­sem­bly pose out­side the Na­tional Congress dur­ing the as­sem­bly’s in­stal­la­tion in Cara­cas on Fri­day.

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