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

Hundreds of newly minted pro-government lawmakers triumphantly entered the Federal Legislative Palace on Friday, clutching red roses and sending up victory whoops on a day critics called a death blow to democracy in Venezuela.

As they entered the red-colored Elliptical Salon — where the new, all powerful congress will operate — its members cheered and held portraits of the late leader Hugo Chávez side by side with images of President Nicolás Maduro, his anointed successor.

In a significant sign of Maduro’s tightening grip, one of his most loyal lieutenants and former foreign minister, Delcy Eloina Rodriguez, was quickly named president of the powerful new body.

Wearing a vivid red pantsuit, she was sworn in alongside a portrait of Chávez under a frescoed ceiling. “I swear to defend the homeland from interventionism,” she said.

“President Nicolás Maduro Moros is made huge today,” she said, using Maduro’s full name, after asking all the new assembly members to rise.

The more than 500-member assembly — picked Sunday in elections widely denounced by Maduro critics and international leaders — represents a sweeping shift on how the country will be run. It also paves the way for other major changes including an overhaul of the country’s constitution.

Opposition lawmakers elected in 2015 — now shunted aside — sought to organized a march in protest. The fate of the 2015 chamber, dominated by anti-Maduro factions, has yet to be decided.

But on a day marking a pivotal moment in the country’s political crisis, only a few hundred marchers appeared to be joining their rallying cry after four months of street resistance that seemed to leave many government opponents exhausted and struggling to figure out a path forward.

Shortly after noon — the time when opposition supporters had called for a mass concentration — only a few dozen people where gathered at one of the rallying points of the march. Some held out hope that more would turn out later. But a 14-year-old boy in the crowd, who declined to give his name, voiced frustration.

“Brother, I’ve been waiting for this march for three days,” he said.” I can’t believe people aren’t turning out.”

Meanwhile, the government swore in lawmakers for the 545-seat, including Maduro’s wife and son, in a move seen as a bid to cement power and muzzle dissident after months of street clashes and food shortages.

The new assembly commenced as international condemnations grew. The Vatican on Friday joined a chorus of worldwide condemnation, demanding the government not use excessive force against demonstrators.

The nation’s crumbling economy, meanwhile, teetered closer toward the abyss.

In a nation where malnutrition is soaring amid food and medical shortages, the near worthless currency, the bolívar, has entered a free fall. Since Sunday’s election, it has shed nearly 83 percent against the dollar on the black market, doubling the cost of bread and tomatoes in less than a week.

In a supermarket in eastern Caracas, shoppers vacillated between sticker shock and despair.

“I came a week ago and saw rice for 5,700 bolívares,” said Gina Angelats, a 62-year-old retire. “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 on Tuesday. Antonio Ledezma, former mayor to Caracas, was returned to house arrest, according to his wife. But another opposition leader, Leopoldo López, remained in the infamous Ramo Verde prison southwest of the capital.

Even as opponents organized a march, fears grew of a larger crackdown on dissent.

The new legislative body will have awesome powers to rewrite the constitution and revamp Venezuelan law. Speaking to its members earlier this week, Maduro urged them to remove the immunity from prosecution granted to the country’s existing legislators. Most of those legislators are government opponents.

Maduro also called on them to create laws that could condemn anti-government agitators to “30 years in jail.” Already, a number government opponents have sought refuge in Chile’s Embassy in Caracas, while 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 any more. To do justice in the coming days, will be the job of the constituent assembly. And to eliminate the parliamentary immunity that generates impunity.”

Early in the morning in the center of Caracas, supporters of the new Constituent Assembly in red T-shirts roamed around the outskirts of the legislative palace.

Dozens of guards blocked access to the building. Maduro is the successor of the leftist firebrand Chávez, who died in 2013. An old Chávez campaign song, the “Heart of the People,” was played outside the legislative palace.

In Plaza Bolivar, right in front of the legislative palace, businesses were open as usual, and informal vendors were selling coffee and cigarettes amid signs and graffiti that read mottos such as ¨Chavez more alive than ever before.” Venezuela flags were displayed on buildings. Then salsa music began to sound in an attempt to create a festive atmosphere.

The pro-government national TV showed the salsa-dancing revelers heralding a new dawn in the country’s socialist revolution dating back to Chávez’s rise to power in 1998.

“We’re here for our beloved commander, Nicolás Maduro, to tell him to keep moving forward,” said an elderly woman interviewed on national television.

“We’re breathing an environment of love and peace,” she added, “while among the oligarchs there is only hate.”

At newsstands, government supporters jostled over a special edition of a pro-government newspaper. The cover: a photo of Chávez.

“The people of Caracas will today bring back to the legislative palace the portraits of Chávez and Bolívar that the anti-homeland right removed in January 2016,” the newspaper read, referring to the 19th century anti-colonial revolutionary Simón Bolívar. The newspaper also featured a list of the chosen constituent members.

An onlooker, Yasmin Albarran, said she came all the way from the state of Trujillo, 110 miles away from the capital, to support the 21 constituents that were chosen from that state. She works in the government’s housing mission which “which was provided for by our president Hugo Chávez, and now, by Maduro.”

The opposition coalition called people to gather in different areas of Caracas to march toward the legislative palace. But Maduro’s opponents have shown signs of division about how to move forward and have coming under increasing fire from some anti-government Venezuelans.

“I think this is the world’s worst opposition,” said Ricardo Palm, a 29-year-old entrepreneur in eastern Caracas. “But it’s the one that we have and we should continue following it. I will keep protesting”

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

Luisa Ortega Díaz, Venezuela’s attorney general — a longtime Chávez supporter who turned against Maduro in March — also introduced on Thursday a measure to immediately suspend the installation of constituent assembly. The action, however, was mostly symbolic and any decision would need to come from the pro-government supreme court.

anthony.faiola@washpost.com

Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.

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

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