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.
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.
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.