All-powerful Venezuelan assembly to open amid protests

0
All-powerful Venezuelan assembly to open amid protests
All-powerful Venezuelan assembly to open amid protests

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro headed toward a showdown with his political foes, preparing to seat a loyalist assembly Friday that will rewrite the country’s constitution and hold powers that override all other government branches.

Leaders of the opposition urged Venezuelans to fill the streets of the capital Friday to reject the assembly, whose 545 delegates were expected to be installed at the legislative palace in a room just yards (meters) from the chamber where the opposition-controlled National Assembly meets. Maduro, who has said he will use the assembly to punish his opponents, plans to attend the opening session.

The installation of the all-powerful assembly will surely intensify a political struggle that has brought three months of bloody anti-government protests. 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.

“The only way they’ll get us out of here is by killing us,” declared Freddy Guevara, the National Assembly’s first vice president. “They will never have the seat that the people of Venezuela gave us.”

On Friday, the Vatican urged Maduro to suspend the new assembly, expressing in a statement “deep worry for the radicalization and worsening” of Venezuela’s political crisis while French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for a renewed mediation effort to avoid further bloodshed.

The opposition boycotted Sunday’s election of the constituent assembly, arguing that the rules were rigged to benefit the government, and nearly all the candidates were supporters of Maduro’s administration.

The election has come under mounting scrutiny since the CEO of an international voting technology company said that “without any doubt” the official voter turnout number had been tampered with – a charge that Maduro and the National Electoral Council have dismissed. An increasing number of foreign governments have refused to recognize the assembly and many within Venezuela fear it will create a one-party state.

“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 called the assembly illegitimate Thursday, saying the election was rigged to further entrench “the Maduro dictatorship.”

“The United States will not recognize the National Constituent Assembly,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

On the eve of the assembly’s installation, the Spanish Embassy in Caracas was attacked with gasoline bombs. Prosecutors said two individuals on a motorcycle launched the devices, which started a fire but caused no reported injuries.

Carlos Romero, a professor and foreign relations analyst in Caracas, called the incident “extremely grave” and said it could further complicate relations between Venezuela and Madrid. Spain’s ambassador to Venezuela was among a group of legislators who visited the National Assembly on Tuesday in a show of support after the constituent assembly election.

Prominent members of the constituent assembly, such as Diosdado Cabello, the leader of the ruling socialist party, have said they plan to target the opposition-controlled congress and the country’s chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime supporter of the late Hugo Chavez who recently broke with Maduro. As one of its first tasks, Maduro has ordered the assembly to declare Ortega Diaz’s office in a state of emergency and entirely restructure it.

In a continuing show of defiance, Ortega Diaz filed a complaint Thursday seeking a court order to block 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 raised by voting technology firm Smartmatic. CEO Antonio Mugica told reporters in London on Wednesday that results recorded by his company’s systems and those reported by the National Electoral Council show the official turnout count was off by at least 1 million votes.

Pledges by opposition lawmakers to remain in power no matter what action the constituent assembly takes have opened the possibility of two governing bodies operating side by side – 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 potentially hold its sessions at another site.

Despite questions surrounding the vote, Maduro all but ensured there was nothing that could stop the government from seating the new assembly.

“They are bent on plowing ahead with this power grab,” Shifter said, “and this is not going to stand in the way.”

___

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

___

Fabiola Sanchez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/fisanchezn

Christine Armario on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario

Opposition lawmakers shout “Fraud, fraud during a session of Venezuelan National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. The CEO of the voting technology company Smartmatic said Wednesday that results of Venezuela’s election for an all-powerful constituent assembly were off by at least 1 million votes. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
A pedestrian walks next to a message on a wall formed with Venezuelan currency that reads in Spanish: “The Constituent Assembly is a fraud”, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 31, 2017. Electoral authorities said more than 8 million people voted Sunday to create a constitutional assembly endowing President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling party with virtually unlimited powers – a figure widely disputed by independent analysts. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
A poster that shows some of Venezuela’s opposition leaders holding a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: “That constituent assembly will not pass” is displayed on a wall near Altamira Square in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro defiantly dismissed allegations that official turnout figures for the election of an all-powerful constituent assembly were manipulated. Pictured in the poster are Henrique Capriles, left, Lilian Tintori, second left, Maria Corina Machado, second right, and National Assembly President Julio Borges, right. ( (AP Photo/Wil Riera)
An anti-government demonstrator waves a flag against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro during a vigil in honor of those who have been killed during clashes between security forces and demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, July 31, 2017. Many analysts believe Sunday’s vote for a newly elected assembly that will rewrite Venezuela’s constitution will catalyze yet more disturbances in a country that has seen four months of street protests in which at least 125 people have died. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Opposition lawmakers Angel Medina, left, and Manuela Bolivar speak with the media upon their arrival to Venezuelan General Prosecutor’s office to introduce a petition asking for an investigation into the recent constituent assembly elections in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro defiantly dismissed allegations that official turnout figures for the election of an all-powerful constituent assembly were manipulated, accusing the international software firm behind the claim of bowing to U.S. pressure to cast doubt over a body that he hopes will entrench an even more staunchly socialist state.(AP Photo/Wil Riera)
Anti-government lawmakers shout “Fraud,” during a session of Venezuela’s National Assembly, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. The National assembly’s claim of a fraudulent election was bolstered when the CEO of the voting technology company Smartmatic said Wednesday that results of Venezuela’s election for the all-powerful constituent assembly were off by at least 1 million votes. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Advertisements