Maduro tightens noose around Venezuela’s opposition

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Nicolás Maduro’s government moved aggressively to wipe out what remains of resistance to his socialist rule, attempting to install a pliant leadership in congress in a move opponents compared to an attempted coup in Venezuela’s last democratic institution.

The surprise gambit took place during a chaotic National Assembly session Sunday at which Maduro’s chief challenger, Juan Guaidó, expected to be reelected head of the opposition-dominated legislature — and in the view of many countries, Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

With security forces in riot gear blocking entry to the neoclassical legislature, Guaidó tried unsuccessfully to scale an iron fence to enter. Inside, lawmakers loyal to Maduro nimbly rushed to choose a substitute leader from a small faction of opposition deputies recently banished for allegedly taking government bribes.

“This is what I’ve been dreaming would happen,” Maduro said at an event inaugurating a baseball stadium near Caracas. “The entire country repudiates Juan Guaidó as a puppet of American imperialism.”

The move was immediately condemned by the United States and other nations that consider Guaidó Venezuela’s rightful leader — recognition that is based on his role as head of congress. Even the leftist government of Argentina, which has been at pains to distance itself from a regional trend to pile on Maduro, questioned the legitimacy of the move.

Hours later, Guaidó — as was expected all along — was re-elected with the support of 100 of the National Assembly’s 167 members in an impromptu session held at the newsroom of El Nacional, the last major opposition newspaper.

Still, the move by Maduro’s allies is another setback for Guaidó, who had been struggling to maintain unity in the opposition coalition after a year of failed efforts to oust the socialist leader. It also sets the stage for another battle for institutional power of the sort Venezuelans have grown used to in recent years.

A critical first test will come Tuesday, when both Guaidó and his newfound rival, lawmaker Luis Parra, have called for legislative sessions at the same palace where Sunday’s disturbances took place.

Analysts said such a brazen attack on congress by Maduro closes off the possibility of dialogue aimed at rescuing a disastrous economy.

“Maduro feels so strong right now that he doesn’t care about having any sign of legitimacy,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.

The opposition complained Parra’s election was invalid on numerous grounds — arguing the session was never officially opened, no quorum count was taken and no formal vote was called; there was merely a rushed show of hands as socialist deputies stormed the dais.

A year ago, Guaidó asserted at a street demonstration that his position as legislative leader made him Venezuela’s interim president in place of the “usurper” Maduro, whose 2018 reelection has been rejected by the U.S., European Union and several Latin American governments. Key opposition figures were barred from running in that election.

The European Union said Sunday it would continue to recognize Guaidó. Brazil’s government called the initial session an “affront to democracy.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement congratulating Guaidó on his reelection and reasserting U.S. recognition of him as the country’s interim president.

“For months corrupt regime officials have engaged in an unlawful, violent, and despicable campaign of arrests, intimidation, and bribery to destroy the last democratic institution in Venezuela, the National Assembly,” Pompeo said.

The weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote were marked by tension, with the opposition alleging a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaidó.

Parra is one of a small handful of lawmakers who recently broke with Guaidó and have since been expelled from their parties for alleged involvement in a corruption scandal involving allies of Maduro.

Socialist lawmakers argued that Guaidó’s absence forced them to initiate their session without him.

But even opposition lawmakers allowed into the chamber had faced challenges from security forces who set up several barricades downtown.

At one checkpoint, security forces demanded that each lawmaker present credentials, arguing they were under orders to deny entry to several lawmakers banned from carrying out their duties by the loyalist supreme court.

Support for Guaidó inside the opposition has taken a hit since several minority parties in November splintered off to create a separate bloc to negotiate directly with Maduro — something that Guaidó has refused, arguing that talks are simply a time-buying exercise aimed at keeping Maduro in power.

The small group of opposition lawmakers who broke with Guaidó argue that in stubbornly sticking to a naive plan of removing Maduro by force, he has put his political ambitions above the needs of Venezuelans who have largely tuned out from the political fight while enduring an economy in shambles and under stiff U.S. sanctions.

“In 2019 you represented the hopes of the nation, but today you’re its biggest deception,” said José Brito, one of the lawmakers who turned against Guaidó.

Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years. Critics blame the plunge on years of failed socialist rule and corruption, while Maduro’s allies say U.S. sanctions are taking a toll on the economy. The South American nation’s 30 million people suffer soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.

An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivaling war-torn Syria.

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Goodman reported from Miami.

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