CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s pro-government constitutional assembly took over the powers of the opposition-led congress Friday, dramatically escalating a standoff between President Nicolas Maduro and his political foes.
The move triggered further international condemnation from the dozens of countries that have already criticized the creation of the all-powerful assembly as an undemocratic power grab by Maduro.
Assembly delegates approved a decree giving them the authority to pass legislation to guarantee the peace, sovereignty and economic well-being of Venezuelans in the face of what they consider machinations and sabotage by Maduro’s opponents.
While the decree does not explicitly dissolve congress it virtually nullifies the already-enfeebled powers. One socialist party leader said for lawmakers to continue meeting in the neoclassical building that has been the parliament’s home for decades they would need to seek permission from the constitutional assembly.
“We will teach them a historic lesson,” constitutional assembly President Delcy Rodriguez said as delegates broke into loud applause while voting by acclamation for the measure.
Opposition lawmakers reacted defiantly, calling on Venezuelans and foreign diplomats to join them for a special legislative session Saturday in which they will repudiate the ruling party’s latest effort to monopolize power.
“The constructional assembly and all its acts are illegal and unconstitutional,” congress President Julio Borges said on Twitter. “This decision won’t be accepted by the National Assembly, the international community or the people.”
Government opponents had been warning that the assembly would move to squash dissent following an election for its members last month that was boycotted by the opposition and criticized by many foreign governments.
In recent days Venezuelans have watched as a steady parade of top officials, including Maduro, kneeled before the assembly charged with rewriting the 1999 constitution and recognized it as the country’s supreme authority.
Borges and leaders of congress were summoned to do the same Friday. But in a public letter, all 109 opposition lawmakers refused to subordinate themselves to a body they consider a betrayal of the 14 million voters who took part in 2015 parliamentary elections that gave Maduro’s critics their first toehold on power in almost two decades of socialist rule.
“One day when we are free in the future, we will remember proudly the battles today that unite us and will be the foundation for the democracy we will build together,” the lawmakers said in the letter.
Since the constitutional assembly convened two weeks ago, Maduro has moved swiftly to jail opposition mayors and neutralize an outspoken critic from within his leftist ranks: chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega.
A longtime loyalist who still reveres the late Hugo Chavez, Ortega broke with Maduro in April and ever since has worked tirelessly to undermine his rule. In retaliation, she was removed from office by the constitutional assembly, barred from leaving the country and went into hiding after an arrest order was issued for her husband for allegedly running an extortion ring out of the prosecutor’s office.
She re-emerged Friday, via Internet from an undisclosed location, to address a meeting in Mexico of prosecutors from around Latin America. In the event, she accused Maduro of removing her to try and thwart a probe linking the president and his inner circle to the almost $100 million in bribes that Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht admitted to paying to Venezuelan officials in exchange for contracts. She said several prosecutors involved in the probe had fled Venezuela fearing for their leaves.
“They are very worried and anguished,” Ortega said. “They know we have information about the transactions, the mounts and the people who enriched themselves and that this investigation implicates Mr. Nicolas Maduro and his entourage.”
International reaction to Friday’s move was swift.
One opposition leader compared what he considers the trampling of Venezuela’s constitution to this week’s attack on pedestrians in Barcelona, while Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, denounced the “fraudulent dissolving” of congress as another step in Maduro’s ongoing “coup.”
The government accuses opposition leaders behind months of anti-government protests of conspiring with the United States to violently oust Maduro. Also on the agenda in Friday’s session was a debate over a proposed law targeting opposition leaders for promoting months of protests that left more than 120 people dead and hundreds more injured or jailed.
AP Writer Maria Verza contributed to this report from Mexico City.