Venezuela’s Maduro Wins Re-Election Amid Opposition Boycott

President extends predecessor’s radical leftist movement

Nicolás Maduro won a second term as president on Sunday. However, polls show Mr. Maduro is unpopular and that most Venezuelans blame him and his policies for an economic crisis.
Nicolás Maduro won a second term as president on Sunday. However, polls show Mr. Maduro is unpopular and that most Venezuelans blame him and his policies for an economic crisis. PHOTO: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS

CARACAS, Venezuela— Nicolás Maduro won re-election to a six-year term in a Venezuelan presidential election deemed illegitimate by the opposition and foreign governments, paving the way for heavier international sanctions amid widespread discontent over his management of an economy in free fall.

Even before the ballots were counted, opposition candidate Henri Falcón cried foul, saying the election was a sham and calling for a new vote this year.

“We do not recognize this electoral process as valid,” he said. “For us, there were no elections.”

The state electoral board, which is allied with the government, said Mr. Maduro had won 5.8 million votes, or 67% of the total, with nearly 93% of the vote counted, compared to 1.8 million, or 21%, for his main challenger, Mr. Falcón, a leftist former governor and ex-soldier. Mr. Falcón had broken with other opposition leaders who called for a boycott.

Those figures were a far cry from what pollsters had forecast. Most polls before the race gave the edge to Mr. Falcon.

Despite near empty polling stations for much of the day in parts of the country, the election board said turnout was 46%—a number that marked the weakest turnout in a presidential vote in nearly two decades.

“How they underestimated me, but here we are: triumphing,” Mr. Maduro told a crowd of supporters in Caracas. He called his victory “a knockout.”

Surrounded by supporters on a stage, Mr. Maduro celebrated what he called the biggest margin of victory a president had recorded here.

“You have confided in me and I’m going to respond to that infinite confidence, that loving confidence,” he said. “All Venezuela has triumphed. Legitimate elections, accompanied by the only one who can decide the future, the people.”

The victory means Chavismo—the radical leftist movement named for the president’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez—will begin a third decade of uninterrupted rule when Mr. Maduro is sworn in for a second term early next year. But it is a government struggling to survive: By the end of the year, the economy will have contracted by 50% since 2013, hyperinflation is expected to top 13,000% and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on much of the top leadership of the government for alleged crimes, including drug trafficking.

Opposition candidate Henri Falcón spoke Sunday night after polls showed less than half of Venezuela’s electorate voted.
Opposition candidate Henri Falcón spoke Sunday night after polls showed less than half of Venezuela’s electorate voted. PHOTO: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS

Millions of Venezuelans don’t have enough to eat, polls show.

“What we’re living is so hard,” said Yelitza Hernandez, a nurse with two young sons she has trouble feeding. Ms. Hernandez said she would vote, but didn’t want to say for whom.

Mr. Maduro’s victory will likely plunge Venezuela into deeper crisis. It will likely spur more Venezuelans to leave, deepening the cost of looking after refugees for neighbors like Colombia and Brazil. It also means Venezuela’s oil industry will continue to collapse, keeping vital oil off global markets at a time of rising international oil prices.

Phil Gunson, who tracks Venezuela for the International Crisis Group policy analysis organization, said Mr. Maduro faces anarchy.

“What he hasn’t done is anything to fix hyperinflation, food scarcity, the collapse of basic services, how to pay the foreign debt, what to do about all the creditors lining up,” Mr. Gunson said. “He has no plan to fix it and no credible team in place either that could, for example, renegotiate that debt.”

Mr. Falcón had hoped widespread gloom and the appeal of his far-reaching proposals, like adopting the dollar as a way to stop hyperinflation, would swamp voting booths with supporters and force the government to concede. Judging by the empty polling booths all day, that didn’t happen.

In a speech late Sunday, ahead of the election results, he railed against the abstention movement as a lost opportunity. But he also said there were myriad violations, including some 90,000 complaints by his team of electoral monitors who denounced so-called assisted votes, where Socialist Party workers accompanied voters and actually cast ballots for them.

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a tweet calling the elections a “sham.” U.S. leaders had said in recent weeks that more sanctions against Venezuela’s leaders—about 60 of whom have been targeted—could be coming.

State Department spokswoman Heather Nauert said the elections weren’t legitimate, echoing what the European Union and the biggest countries in Latin America have said.

“The United States stands with democratic nations around the world in support of the Venezuelan people and their sovereign right to elect their representatives through free and fair elections,” she said in a Twitter message.

In recent weeks, polls had shown that Mr. Falcón would beat an unpopular president whose five years in office have been marked by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people to other countries.

But Mr. Falcón’s campaign not only faced the electoral machinery of Venezuela’s Socialist government but also the boycott, which pollsters predicted would hurt him. In addition to facing Mr. Maduro, he had to contend with a second challenger, Javier Bertucci, a televangelist and businessman who siphoned votes from Mr. Falcón. In the end, Mr. Bertucci collected 925,000 votes, or 10.7%, the National Electoral Council said.

Opposition leaders, though, said Mr. Falcón never stood a chance against a government whose leaders have said publicly in speeches that they would never give up power.

Venezuela’s electoral council, stacked with government supporters, in 2016 blocked a recall referendum on Mr. Maduro, though the vote was permitted in the constitution, and two elections last year were marked by widespread fraud. Mr. Maduro’s allies also barred the most popular opposition leaders from running for president.

On Sunday, Mr. Falcón denounced the government for pressuring ordinary people by keeping track of who voted by scanning IDs called Fatherland Cards that are also used to track the state benefits voters receive.

It was one of seven violations of an 11-point agreement that Mr. Falcón had signed with Mr. Maduro in March to ensure as fair a vote as possible. His campaign said the government also failed to allow equal access to state media outlets, technical auditing of the voting machine, include independent international observers and keep pro-government campaigners away from voting centers.

“Today in Venezuela, this has become a virus,” Mr. Falcón said from the central city of Barquisimeto, where he voted and used to be mayor. He criticized the government for “political and social blackmail of a sector of the population whose dignity they’re trying to purchase.”

A former bus driver who received his formative political training in Communist Cuba, Mr. Maduro told voters that he wanted another chance to guide his country. “I will carry out an economic revolution that will shake the entire world,” Mr. Maduro had said at a Thursday rally.

He and his allies have contended the shortages and economic chaos have been the result of U.S. sanctions and local businesses that hoard, explanations rejected by independent economists who blame government policies.

Voting was more robust in the districts where the government has traditionally drawn support. Buses were used to move people to the polls, and teams of pro-government supporters went door-to-door herding residents to the ballot box and reminding them of the monthly food boxes they receive.

“Thanks to Maduro that we get our benefits; before we used to get nothing,” said Victor Vasquez, a 54-year-old truck driver in an east Caracas slum. He feared losing the food and frequent bonuses in the near-worthless bolivar currency if the Socialist leader were to be replaced.

Another government supporter, Humberto Vargas, 72, said Mr. Maduro was “guaranteeing peace” in the face of hostility by the opposition and governments that have opposed the president, such as the U.S. “The United States and the opposition have caused the hunger that many people are suffering,” he said.

Polls, though, show that Mr. Maduro is deeply unpopular and that most Venezuelans blame him and his policies, including price controls, a highly stringent currency exchange and expropriations, for having gutted the economy and decimated a once vigorous middle class.

Anger over what had happened to her country led Carmen Arrechedera, 56, a homemaker, to remain home like so many others.

“No one should have tried to legitimize Maduro but rather leave him alone” in the race, she said. “I don’t believe in the electoral system. It’s fraudulent, and there aren’t even international observers you can confide in. There’s an authoritarian regime in Venezuela that won’t permit itself to be removed from power.”

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com and Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com

Venezuela: A country in meltdown

Venezuela’s inflation rate is already the highest in the world but is set for a new record. Even in the capital, people are struggling to afford basic goods and services on incomes once regarded as more than adequate.

woman standing in front of near empty supermarket shelf (Getty Images/AFP/J. Barreto)

Venezuela, a country of 30 million people, sits on the world’s largest oil reserves but has been suffering a massive economic downturn since global crude prices fell dramatically three years ago.

The government has not published inflation data for more than a year. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast an inflation rate of 2,350 percent for 2018.

In an attempt to cushion the effect of inflation at the end of December, the Venezuelan government implemented the sixth wage and pension increase in a year, raising the minimum wage by 40 percent.

A grinding challenge to live

“In the mornings, you see well-dressed people looking for leftovers in the garbage before going to work,” Miguel Angel Hernandez, a 24-year-old lawyer who is in the middle of his MA studies, told DW.

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Venezuelan chocolates thriving amid socialist chaos

“With a salary like mine, people used to be able to buy a car and make a down payment on a house. I can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes. Facing this reality destroys your expectations,” he said.

“Inflation is eating up almost everything,” said a 38-year-old lawyer who works at a public agency and has asked to remain anonymous. “Now I go to the supermarket to buy shampoo, and one bottle is almost what I make in a fortnight. Lately, there’s been a shortage of sugar. I found one bag last week for 105,000 bolivars. But I earn only 650,000 bolivars a month.”

Cristina Carbonell (Cristina Carbonell)Christina Carbonell: ‘No running water for days’

Cristina Carbonell is a lawyer who works at ProVene, an organization that offers free legal advice. She confirms that everyday life in the capital has become a challenge.

“Our ID number determines which day of the week we go to the market. But with basic products like milk, you get only two liters. Last week, we had no running water for three days. The constant shortage has caused outbreaks of fungus and scabies – and I’m talking about Caracas.”

Medical emergency

Protests erupted in the slums of Caracas in late December, triggered by bottlenecks at state-sponsored outlets where up to 20 staple foods are available at subsidized prices. Angry demonstrators set fire to garbage and chanted “We are hungry” as they protested against the food shortages.

 Venezuela lacks the foreign exchange reserves needed to import groceries and everyday necessities. Several rating agencies already have certified the South American country as partially bankrupt.

Lorena Surga, the founder of the aid movement Angeles Invisibles, works with doctors in Colombia who buy drugs for three Venezuelan hospitals and donate their medicine samples as well.

“Birth rates have increased. There are no birth control pills. The number of people affected by sexually transmitted diseases has grown because there are no condoms. Cancer patients are dying because there are not enough drugs to complete their treatment. Some are being treated with expired ones,” she said.

Venezuelan looking for food among garbage (Menta Producciones)Some people have been reduced to searching for food among garbage

Police violence

In May 2017, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest the humanitarian crisis and the political changes after socialist President Nicolas Maduro stripped the opposition-ruled Congress of power.

“I marched several times, and each day police forces were more repressive,” Cristina Carbonell recalled. “A policeman shot my brother-in-law at point-blank range with a pellet. I couldn’t leave my office to help him because police were shooting at passers-by.”

In November 2017, the NGOs Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Penal Forum published a joint report on the human rights violations committed by Venezuelan armed forces during the protests last May and in the months that followed. Tear gas, water cannon and pellets were systematically used. The rubber pellets were often even filled with marbles, broken glass or metal bolts to cause injury and pain.

“The protests were repressed more brutally than before,” said Tamara Taraciuk, a senior HRW Americas researcher.

“Just look at the numbers: In 2014, 43 people died in the protests and 800 were injured. In 2017, 124 people died and 2,000 were injured,” she said.

The HRW report also mentions several cases of torture in detention centers. It says men, women and teenagers were subjected to electric shocks, ruthless beatings, sexual abuse and asphyxiation and detained along with dozens of others in small, unventilated cells with a minimum amount of water and food.

Venezuela Caracas Protest ARCHIV (pictutre-alliance/NurPhoto/R. Camacho)Police have been accused of brutally repressing the protests

Mass exodus amid rising crime

Some sociologists estimate that as many as 2 million Venezuelans have left the country since the late President Hugo Chavez took power in 1999, though this figure is disputed by the Maduro government.

Read more:

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“People are locking their homes and leaving with what they can carry,” says aid worker Lorena Surga.

The crime rate is also rising, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), an organization created by the Venezuelan Laboratory of Social Studies in 2005.

It says 28,479 people were killed in 2016, which translates to a soaring homicide rate of 91.8 per 100,000 inhabitants in the whole of the country. This compares with a rate of 90 per 100,000 the year before. In Caracas, the rate is even higher, with the OVV saying there were 140 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016.

People searching in garbage (Menta Producciones)The situation is dire for many ordinary Venezuelans

Even the official homicide figure released by the Venezuelan attorney general’s office for 2016, though much lower than the OVV statistic, is still among the world’s highest, at 70.1 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“I feel I’m living in a prison. I go from home to work to school and have to get back before 8 p.m. because it’s too dangerous. So far the government’s fight against criminal bands has failed,” says Hernandez.

“A year ago I started a master’s program with 36 fellow students,” he says. “Now we’re only twelve. Some have left the country and others dropped out because the semester went from costing 29,000 bolivars to 497,000.”

“Next year I might also leave – for Peru or Argentina,” Hernandez concludes. One gets the impression that he feels there is no other choice.

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Venezuelans make money from nothing

COURTESY: DW

Venezuela backs national cryptocurrency with 5,000,000,000 barrels of crude

Venezuela backs national cryptocurrency with 5,000,000,000 barrels of crude
The President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro has promised to back the national cryptocurrency Petro with the country’s vast natural resource reserves.

“Here’s the document formalizing the provision of the certified Ayacucho oil field No.1 in the Orinoco Petroleum Belt for the support of El Petro cryptocurrency,” Maduro said on national TV.

Maduro said the field’s “reserves amount to five billion barrels of oil,” which is confirmed by the corresponding “international certificate.”

“Every single Petro will be backed by a barrel of oil,” Maduro said, promising to provide cryptocurrency mining throughout the country. “We will set up a special team of cryptocurrency specialists so they will be engaged in mining in all states and municipalities of our country.”

The Venezuelan leader has also promised to allocate Arco Minero gold deposits from the Orinoco Belt along with the country’s diamond deposits.

The new cryptocurrency was announced by Maduro at the beginning of December as a way “to innovate toward new forms of international finance for the economic and social development of the country.”

He said its value would be pegged to the country’s vast reserves of oil and gas as well as its mineral wealth, including gold. The Venezuelan president explained the purpose was “to advance the country’s monetary sovereignty, to carry out financial transactions and to defeat the financial blockade against the country.”

Russia agrees to restructure Venezuela’s $3bn debt https://on.rt.com/8rqi 

Russia agrees to restructure Venezuela’s $3bn debt — RT Business News

Russia has agreed to restructure Venezuela’s $2.8 billion debt with extension of payment terms. The country’s total debt amounts to $100 billion.

rt.com

“We are facing a financial war against the country which we have denounced, and the opposition has denied. There are business people who are unaffected by Donald Trump’s blockade. With this, we will join the 21st century,” said Maduro.

COURTESY: RT

As Venezuela starves, Maduro tells army to prepare for US ‘threats’

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, fresh off calling on the inhabitants of his starving nation to eat rabbits that had been kept as pets, is now asking his army to make sure it has “rifles, missiles and well-oiled tanks at the ready” amid a war of words with the United States.

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Maduro made the declaration Monday during a military exercise in the city of Maracay, two days after the Trump administration signed new restrictions imposing bans on the entry of some Venezuelan government officials and their families into the U.S.

“We have been shamelessly threatened by the most criminal empire that ever existed and we have the obligation to prepare ourselves to guarantee peace,” Maduro said, according to AFP.

The Venezuelan president, wearing military garb, also said he wanted prosperity for his country, but added “we need to have rifles, missiles and well-oiled tanks at the ready…to defend every inch of the territory if needs be.”

Nearly two weeks ago Maduro encouraged people to start eating rabbits for protein as Venezuela faces a severe food shortage. After being given the rabbits, many people who took part in a pilot project for the rabbit-eating initiative placed bow ties on the bunnies, kept them as pets and cuddled with them in bed.

Low supplies of food and medicine are leaving millions of people starving and desperate for medical treatment. A study published earlier this year reported that roughly 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds in the last year due to food shortages, Fox News reported.

The ongoing economic crisis has been spurred by the socialist policies of Maduro and his predecessor, the late former President Hugo Chavez.

The U.S. government in August hit Maduro and 20 other top officials with financial sanctions, and also banned American finance companies from lending money to Venezuela’s government and its state-run oil company, AFP reported.

Trump said in August he wouldn’t rule out a “military option” to resolve Venezuela’s political struggles.

Courtesy, Fox News

Maduro: Venezuela can meet Trump talk with military might

President Nicolas Maduro has urged Venezuela’s military to be ready for a possible US incursion. The US has issued new sanctions “carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship” access to critical funds.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said his US counterpart, Donald Trump, was contemplating a “classic” occupation of Venezuela. Addressing generals, Maduro said he expected the continued backing of the military, from which he has maintained surprisingly consistent support despite months of protests against his government – and more than 130 demonstrator deaths.

“We must be clear, especially for the youth in the military, that we must close ranks within the homeland – that this is no time for any fissures and that those with doubts should leave the armed forces immediately,” the 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister told generals.

Read more: 5 things to know about oil-rich, cash-poor Venezuela

Trump and his supporters “treat us as a dictatorship,” Maduro said, urging soldiers to “be prepared to fight fiercely.”

“You are with Trump and the imperialists, or you are with the National Bolivaran Armed Forces and the homeland.”

Sweeping sanctions

Earlier in August, Trump said the US had “many options for Venezuela – and by the way I’m not going to rule out a military option.” However, his own vice president, Mike Pence, attempted to soften that message on a visit to Latin America shortly after, saying the United States could, for example, restore democracy to Venezuela through economic and diplomatic pressure.

Trump on Friday signed an executive order enacting sweeping financial sanctions against the Maduro government and the state-run oil giant PDVSA.

Read more: What is going on in Venezuela?

The measures “are carefully calibrated to deny the Maduro dictatorship a critical source of financing to maintain its illegitimate rule, protect the United States financial system from complicity in Venezuela’s corruption and in the impoverishment of the Venezuelan people and allow for humanitarian assistance,” said a statement from the White House.

Maduro has grown increasingly sensitive to criticism of his rule. Earlier this month, his foreign minister sent a letter to Germany’s embassy in Caracas after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman accused the regime of “arbitrary arrests and excessive violence.”

Watch video01:03

Hunger crisis hits Venezuela

‘In private hands’

Maduro said he would like to “incorporate” Venezuela’s Digitel and Spain’s Movistar – telecommunications companies “still in private hands” – into the state’s cyberdefense strategy. “You know that the first thing that is affected in an armed conflict is communications,” he told the military leadership on Thursday.

Movistar Venezuela services 6 million of the country’s approximately 15 million smartphones and has more than 10 million customers – roughly a third of the population. According to its own figures, the company administers over 60 percent of Venezuela’s online traffic.

Maduro also moved his oil minister, Nelson Martinez, over to run the state petrol giant PDVSA – and appointed the company’s boss, Eulogio Del Pino, to lead the ministry. “We are in a moment of flexibility to face the economic war,” Maduro said. A fall in world crude prices has left Venezuela, which has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, short of dollars for vital imports such as basic pharmaceuticals.

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Military coup in Venezuela? DW Correspondent Oscar Schlenker from Caracas

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Venezuela says it has put down uprising at army base

At least two “terrorists” were killed during an attack on a Venezuelan army base, President Nicolas Maduro said. The apparent uprising came after a former National Guard captain demanded the creation of a new government.

A man argues with members of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guards outside the Paramacay military base in Valencia

Venezuela’s military says it put down a rebellion at a key army base in Valencia on Sunday, less than two days after the government appeared to ensure its indefinite rule by forming a legislative body loyal to President Nicolas Maduro.

Socialist Party deputy Diosdado Cabello announced the uprising had been put down shortly after a video was released that showed a group of military men announcing the rebellion.

Several of the assailants were arrested, officials said, after reports of shots being fired near the base in the city’s Paramacay Fort, used by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB in Spanish).

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Venezuela spirals toward dictatorship

“Our FANB successfully repelled a paramilitary criminal terrorist attack, the seven captured are giving information!” Rear Admiral Remigio Ceballos, head of the military’s strategic operational command, said on Twitter.

In a video released earlier on Sunday, a man who identified himself as Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a former National Guard captain, said: “We demand the immediate formation of a transition government.” He was flanked by about a dozen men in military uniforms.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” he said. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish constitutional order. But more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction.”

A witness near the military base, in the town of Naguanagua, reported hearing gunshots before dawn, but Cabello maintained that the situation had been brought under control. Officials said the rebels, whom they described as “terrorists,” were trying to steal weapons and that seven people were detained after the attack on the base.

Venezuela Proteste in Valencia (Getty Images/AFP/R. Schemidt)Anti-government protesters were also active in Valencia on Sunday

Criticism of Maduro grows

So far the rest of the country appears to be remaining calm, if tense.

Watch video02:02

Venezuela’s government dismisses one of its most powerful critics: Oscar Schlenker from Caracas

Critics at home and abroad have condemned the so-called constituent assembly that formed on Friday and is intended to replace the popularly elected National Assembly, which opposes Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

The constituent assembly quickly moved to dismiss the state prosecutor, Luisa Ortega,  a former ally of Maduro’s who has recently become his staunchest critic.

Ortega refused to recognize the assembly’s move and vowed to resist the Maduro regime “with my last breath” against what she considers the government’s unconstitutional overreach.

The armed forces are seen as the key power broker in Venezuela, and opposition leaders have repeatedly called on the military to break ranks with Maduro.

But the military leadership continues to publicly profess loyalty to the president and his government. Critics say lucrative government contracts, corruption and contraband mean many military officials want Maduro to stay in power. They also fear persecution should the opposition take over.

The country has been in a years-long deepening economic crisis, which has fed the political tensions in the oil-rich state. Periodic demonstrations have grown into daily protests in recent months. Since April, more than 120 people have been killed in the daily clashes as rock-throwing protesters have been met by state security forces firing rubber bullets and water cannon.

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Venezuelan chief prosecutor’s office blocked by security forces

Venezuelan security forces have blocked off the offices of the chief prosecutor, one of President Nicolas Maduro’s most vocal critics. She is expected to be removed by a newly installed all-powerful assembly.

Watch video01:32

Venezuela opens disputed constituent assembly

Chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz on Saturday condemned what she called a military “siege,” as she posted photos to Twitter showing dozens of troops from the Venezuelan military outside her Caracas headquarters.

“I denounce this arbitrary act before the national and international community,” she wrote.

The move comes as newly elected members of the all-powerful constituent assembly pledged to move swiftly against President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents.

“Don’t think we’re going to wait weeks, months or years,” former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said on Friday after she was voted unanimously by all 545 delegates to lead the assembly. “Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you.”

Read more: What is Venezuela’s constituent assembly?

Some of the assembly’s delegates have already called directly for Ortega’s removal.

Protesters make petrol bombs as the first sitting of the constituent assembly gets underwayAnti-Maduro protesters make petrol bombs as the first sitting of the constituent assembly gets underway in Caracas

Assembly gets to work

The body, which was meeting for the second time on Saturday, is tasked with rewriting the country’s constitution. President Maduro has said the assembly will also strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution.

The opposition has refused to recognize the new body, which includes Maduro’s wife and son among its more than 500 members and is composed largely of presidential loyalists. Government opponents see the asembly as a move by Maduro to destroy democracy.

Delegates of the national constituent assmebly meet in CaracasNational constituent assembly members, including the body’s President Delcy Rodriguez (in red), meet in Caracas

Prosecutor Ortega had announced earlier in the week that she would open an investigation into alleged irregularities into Sunday’s controversial election to form the assembly. She also submitted a court claim seeking to suspend the body.

Despite opposition protests, the assembly’s first session went ahead on Friday.

Demonstrations have continued for more than four months, and the opposition’s call to renew street protests raised fears that the death toll could risebeyond the 125 individuals who have already died.

Maduro supporters with hands raised outside the legislative palace (Reuters/U. Marcelino)Maduro supporters were also present outside the legislative palace as the meeting began on Friday

International rejection

Plans to install the new assembly provoked an international outcry, with the United States, the European Union and major Latin American countries all saying they would not recognize it. The Vatican has also urged Maduro not to go ahead with the assembly, calling on the government “to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the existing constitution.”

The constituent assembly has unlimited powers to dissolve the country’s legislature, the National Assembly, and amend laws, in addition to its task of rewriting the 1999 constitution brought in under late President Hugo Chavez. Maduro says the new constitution will end Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, though he gave no details on how these ends would be attained.

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