President Maduro sends troops to protect Venezuela’s sham assembly from protesters
Venezuelan troops seized part of the country’s parliament building yesterday as President Maduro prepared to install a new assembly elected in a widely condemned vote on Sunday.
National Guard officers gathered opposite the main parliamentary chamber where the opposition-controlled National Assembly meets. Mr Maduro ignores all laws passed by parliament, claiming that it is in the hands of fascists.
The constituent assembly, which will have power to overrule the elected parliament, has been described by opponents as the final step towards a Cuban-style dictatorship.
Luisa Ortega, the attorney-general, and a former Maduro loyalist, said that her office would investigate “a series of irregularities regarding the election”, which was boycotted by the opposition. She estimated that turnout on Sunday may have been as low as 15 per cent.
Last night she sought a court order to block the inauguration of the assembly, which has already been delayed by 24 hours amid fears of violent clashes between government and opposition supporters.
Among the 545 members are the president’s wife and son. Mr Maduro said that the ceremony today would be performed “in peace and calm, with all necessary protocol”. The opposition plans a protest march to the building.
Mr Maduro’s decision to establish a constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution has led to him being sanctioned and labelled a dictator by the US.
Several Latin American nations, including Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia, as well as all EU member states, the US and Canada have said that they will not recognise the new assembly.
Mr Maduro insists that it is the path to “peace and reconciliation” in the country; his opponents see it as a rubber stamp parliament and the end of 60 years of democracy in Venezuela.
The vote on Sunday was deeply controversial. The Venezuelan Electoral Council, a body that is loyal to the president, announced that more than eight million people took part — 41 per cent of the electorate. This would represent a dramatic surge in support for President Maduro since parliamentary elections in 2015 amid the steepest recession in Latin American history.
Doubts over the result appeared to be confirmed when Antonio Mugica, chief executive of Smartmatic, which supplies Venezuela’s voting machines, revealed that the result was “manipulated” by at least a million votes. No independent observers were allowed to monitor the vote.
After months of protests in which more than 125 people have died speaking out against a government that seems ever more entrenched, enthusiasm for street demonstrations has showed signs of waning.
“We all want Maduro to go. He is the worst president. But it feels so hopeless too,” Gaby Soto, an assistant at a bakery in Caracas, said.
Widespread international condemnation over the new assembly and the threat of economic sanctions saw the bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, fall by 18 per cent yesterday against the dollar.
With inflation spiralling out of control, the currency has dropped 60 per cent in the last month, with 17,981 bolivars buying just one dollar on the black market.
Luisa Ortega, a shy academic with impeccable left-wing credentials, might seem an unlikely heroine to take on the thuggish Maduro regime, but for four months the attorney-general has been launching legal actions against its most extreme abuses of power (Stephen Gibbs writes).
Her declaration, in March, that an attempt by the supreme court to usurp parliament broke the constitution helped to foment the protests. Now she has challenged last Friday’s election results.
She is, however, running out of time. One of the incentives for President Maduro to establish a constituent assembly is that it would have the authority to remove Ms Ortega, 59, from office and possibly jail her.
Ms Ortega was appointed attorney-general in 2007, when Hugo Chávez was in power. She said his message of social inclusion captivated her.
Some opposition supporters point out that she has been the leading prosecutor in a government that has imprisoned dozens of politicians. She said she reflected on how Venezuela is ruled when her daughter and grandson were kidnapped.