Venezuela ushers in new pro-government chamber as opposition struggles to regroup

Amid the blaring sounds of socialist anthems, hundreds of newly elected pro-government law­makers triumphantly entered the Federal Legislative Palace on Friday, sending up victory whoops on a day critics called a death blow for democracy in Venezuela.

The legislators’ entry into the neoclassical complex marked the inauguration of an all-powerful lawmaking body elected Sunday in a vote that has been condemned internationally. Opposition lawmakers elected in 2015 — and now shunted aside — decried the new body as a puppet congress installed by President Nicolás Maduro.

As members of the new Constituent Assembly entered the building’s red-colored Elliptical Salon, they held high portraits of the late leader Hugo Chávez side by side with images of Maduro, his anointed successor. In a sign of Maduro’s tightening grip, one of his most loyal lieutenants, former foreign minister Delcy Eloína Rodríguez, was sworn in as the body’s new president. 

“President Nicolás Maduro Moros is made huge today,” she said, using Maduro’s full name.

A message on a wall formed with Venezuelan currency that reads in Spanish: “The Constituent Assembly is a fraud” in Caracas on July 31, 2017.  (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

The 545-member assembly represents a sweeping shift in how the country will be run, with its supporters calling it the vehicle needed to complete Chavez’s socialist vision. It is vested with the authority to change the country’s constitution and overhaul laws.

Only a few hundred people appeared to be joining an opposition march to protest the new assembly. After four months of street protests against the authorities and the country’s economic collapse, government opponents seemed angry and exhausted, struggling to find a path forward.

About five minutes after one group of protesters began marching toward the legislative palace, security forces moved in on motor­bikes, lobbing tear-gas bombs and firing rubber bullets. Opposition legislators ran in all directions. At least one man’s face was hit by rubber bullets. 

Earlier, as protesters met to begin marching, some expressed their frustration to legislator Juan Requesens.

“There are no people here, Juan,” complained one woman. Others criticized the signs of division popping up among the opposition. 

“There are many doubts about the strategy we’ve been following,” Requesens acknowledged. “The opposition has two important responsibilities: to maintain street pressure and to prevent divisions. There have been communication errors these days, but they’ll be fixed.”

Requesens said that opposition lawmakers were still in the dark about whether they would be allowed back into the legislature on Monday. Even if they were, some said they would never sit in the same building as the new Constituent Assembly. A plan was emerging, Requesens said, to potentially convene the lawmakers elected in 2015 somewhere else.

As the new assembly was sworn in, international pressure on the government built. The Vatican on Friday joined a chorus of worldwide condemnation of the constitution-writing body and demanded that the government not use excessive force against demonstrators. 

The nation’s economy, meanwhile, moved closer to the abyss. 

In a nation where malnutrition is soaring amid shortages of food and medicine, the nearly worthless currency, the bolívar, has entered free fall. The Venezuelan currency lost 45.3 percent of its value in one week, as the price of the dollar on the black market nearly doubled.

In a supermarket in eastern Caracas, shoppers expressed sticker shock.

“I came a week ago and saw rice for 5,700 boliívares,” said Gina Angelats, a 62-year-old retiree. “I didn’t buy it because it seemed too expensive. But now it’s 18,000! This is unaffordable. . . . Blame the government and its socialist policies. They’ve ruined the country.”

Early Friday, Maduro’s government released one of two opposition leaders hauled to jail in pre-dawn raids Tuesday. Antonio Ledezma, a former mayor of Caracas, was remanded to house arrest, according to his wife. But another opposition leader, Leopoldo López, remained in the infamous Ramo Verde prison southwest of the capital. 

The new legislative body will have sweeping powers to reshape Venezuela’s institutions and rules. Speaking to its members earlier this week, Maduro urged them to remove the immunity from prosecution granted to the country’s existing legislators. A majority of those legislators are opponents of his government. 

Maduro also called for new laws that could set 30-year jail sentences for anti-government agitators. Already, a number of government opponents have sought refuge in the Chilean Embassy in Caracas, and at least one has sought asylum in Panama. 

“What did the opposition do on July 30?” Maduro said, referring to the date of the Constituent Assembly vote. “They went crazy on Twitter. Only with the tweets they published, it’s enough to send them to prison for 30 years. That’s your job, not mine anymore. To do justice in the coming days, [that] will be the job of the Constituent Assembly. And to eliminate the parliamentary immunity that generates impunity.”

Rodríguez, the head of the new assembly, on Friday heralded ­Maduro’s battle with the opposition. She vowed to the president that “we will not leave you alone in this fight.”

The new assembly amounts to a cross section of Maduro supporters, including students, activists for the disabled, slum dwellers and state workers. Although the assembly has a smattering of top government officials, many of the members are new to political life.

Early in the morning, supporters of the Constituent Assembly roamed outside the legislative palace wearing red T-shirts. Dozens of guards blocked access to the building. An old Chávez campaign song, “The Heart of the People,” echoed through the Plaza Bolívar, in front of the palace.

An onlooker, Yasmin Albarran, said she had come from the state of Trujillo, 110 miles away, to support the 21 members of the new assembly who were chosen from that state. She works in the government’s program to provide housing for the poor, which she said “was provided for by our president Hugo Chávez, and now, by Maduro.”

On Thursday, members of pro-government gangs, known as colectivos, allegedly threw three molotov cocktails at the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. The Spanish ambassador showed support for anti-government legislators earlier this week, and the Spanish government said it wouldn’t recognize the Constituent Assembly vote. 

Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.

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