Pro-Institutions Gain Ground Against Venezuelan Opposition

Constitutional Assembly delegate Carmen Melendez speaks from the podium during a session in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. The government-backed assembly that is recasting Venezuela’s political system filed into the stately domed chamber where congress normally meets. In two previous sessions, the 545-member assembly met in an adjacent, smaller building. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Institutions loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro encroached further on his opponent’s dwindling power base in the nation’s government on Tuesday, taking over the halls of the endangered, opposition-controlled congress and sentencing a mayor at the center of recent protests to prison.

Delegates to the new, all-powerful constitutional assembly convened in the stately, gold-domed chamber where congress normally meets in another sign that it intends to muscle aside any authority still held by the opposition.

Opposition lawmakers said they were barred from entering the legislative palace after security forces led by constitutional assembly president Delcy Rodriguez broke into congress late Monday to set up seats for the 545 pro-government delegates.

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“This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning,” Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter of the assembly’s takeover of the congressional chamber the opposition has controlled since winning 2015 elections.

Photos of late President Hugo Chavez, who first installed Venezuela’s socialist government, were prominently displayed at the front of the hall.

In her opening address at Tuesday’s session, Rodriguez described the takeover of the congressional chamber as an act “complying with norms and laws of the republic, which for the majority of Venezuelans should be something normal.” The constitutional assembly later passed decrees pledging “support and solidarity” to the president and the nation’s armed forces after a weekend attack at a large military base.

Meanwhile, only a few dozen demonstrators heeded the opposition’s call to set up traffic-snarling roadblocks in Caracas to show their opposition to the new assembly.

Protests that drew hundreds of thousands at their peak are drawing fewer and fewer as fear and resignation creep in. At least 124 people have been killed and hundreds more injured or detained during the protests.

A United Nations report released Tuesday found that Venezuela’s armed forces were responsible for 46 of the deaths since April. Another 27 people were killed by groups of armed, pro-government civilians, the report said.

Earlier Tuesday, Venezuela’s pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor at the center of recent protests to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations in the leafy suburb of Chacao where he has been mayor since 2013.

Ramon Muchacho is the fourth opposition mayor whose arrest the high court has sought in the past two weeks. The court also ordered an investigation into another prominent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolansky, for the same alleged crimes.

Muchacho’s whereabouts were not immediately known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter, saying that “all of the weight of the revolutionary injustice has fallen on my shoulders” for merely acting to guarantee the constitutional right to protest.

Chacao was previously governed by Leopoldo Lopez, the most prominent activist jailed by the Maduro government, and is the main gathering point for protests.

The constitutional assembly’s meeting Tuesday came amid mounting criticism from foreign governments that have refused to recognize the new super-body.

More than a dozen Latin American leaders were gathering in Peru to discuss how to force Maduro to back down. Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new Venezuelan assembly, but the region has had trouble agreeing on collective actions.

In response, Maduro convened a meeting of foreign ministers from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told representatives from nations including Cuba and Bolivia that longstanding U.S. aggression against his troubled South American nation have “entered a much stronger phase.”

Opposition lawmakers have vowed to hold onto their only government foothold – the country’s single-chamber congress – despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Lawmakers voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super body’s decrees.

Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. The U.N. human rights commissioner report warned of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.

Meanwhile, opposition parties were facing a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether to take part in regional elections scheduled for December.

The National Electoral Council announced that the nation’s largest opposition coalition was barred from entering candidates in seven of Venezuela’s 23 states, citing ongoing court proceedings. In recent years, the government has also taken action prohibiting high-profile opposition leaders from running.

While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to be no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in last month’s constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.

Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.

Source: Associated Press

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