CARACAS – Pro- and anti-government factions dug themselves further into their trenches Monday amid Venezuela’s deepening political crisis, with each side staking a claim to the powers granted them by dueling national assemblies.
The new chief prosecutor who replaced an outspoken government critic outlined plans for restructuring the Public Ministry, while the opposition-controlled National Assembly vowed to continue meeting at the stately legislative palace — a short walk across a plaza from where the all-powerful constitutional assembly is expected to hold its next meeting Tuesday.
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National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers they should keep an active presence in the building despite threats from the new assembly to swiftly strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the “symbol of popular sovereignty.”
“We are a testament to the fight for democracy,” he said at a meeting cobbled together amid mounting uncertainty about the legislature’s future. “It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.”
In theory, both the National Assembly and the pro-government constitutional assembly can rule simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election that drew international condemnation has the authority to trump any other branch of government — and Venezuela’s leaders have promised to do just that.
Since its installation Friday, the constitutional assembly has signaled that it will act swiftly in response to President Nicolás Maduro’s commands, which have included calls to strip legislators of their constitutional immunity from prosecution.
“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolás Maduro,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday. “But also, to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism.”
Several hundred pro-government Venezuelans marched to the legislative palace, where opposition lawmakers were inside crafting a resolution disavowing the new assembly.
National Assembly members voted unanimously not to recognize any of the new super-body’s decisions, which include removing chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz from power and installing a “truth commission” that will wield unusual authority to prosecute and levy sentences.
“The intent is to pursue those who think differently,” lawmaker Delsa Solórzano said.
Brazil’s ambassador to Venezuela, Ruy Pereira, attended the session in a show of support for the congress.
Cabello said that the constitutional assembly’s decisions have all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chávez and that the new assembly would be in power for “at least two years.”
“This is a completely legal process,” he said.
Ortega Díaz’s replacement, Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by Washington for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human rights official, appeared on state television to both chastise the leader of the agency he will oversee and announce his plans to revamp it.
He criticized Ortega Díaz for “fanning the flames” of political conflict in Venezuela and said he would proceed with a “logical restructuring” of an office he deemed overly political and bureaucratic.
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Ortega Díaz is not recognizing Saab as chief prosecutor, and both opposition leaders and foreign dignitaries have said they will not acknowledge him as Venezuela’s top law enforcement official.
John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro’s administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.
The opposition-led National Assembly “will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,” Magdaleno said.
The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to declare whether or not they will take part in scheduled December regional elections. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week. Opposition members refused to participate in the July 30 election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on whether or not to take part in the upcoming vote for governors.
While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at 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 the 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.
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On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks’ weapons supply. Ten escaped, but two were killed and the remaining eight were captured after battling with soldiers for three hours, Maduro said.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said special units were being activated Monday to assist in the search for the escapees, who remained at large more than 24 hours after the attack.
Freddy Guevara, the first vice president of the National Assembly, said the attack as a worrisome development.
“When people feel that all recourse — electoral and constitutional — is closed off, they can be tempted to support this kind of method,” he said. “Because they feel that there isn’t another.”