In what’s likely a sign of things to come, the inaugural session of Venezuela’s National Assembly on Tuesday devolved into shouting, shoving and recrimination as the opposition took control of the body for the first time in 17 years.
The ruling-party delegation, long accustomed to holding sway in the legislature, stormed out of congress as they accused their rivals of violating internal regulations.
But beyond the posturing and brinkmanship, the opposition bloc laid out the guidelines of what they said would be their program to rescue the country.
Among their goals: restore congressional autonomy, free political prisoners through an amnesty law, and develop a strategy within six months to “change the government via the constitution.”
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“That we’re here is a victory for the people who are desperate for change,” said Julio Borges, the head of the opposition majority. It represents “the desire of millions of Venezuelans who have said ‘Enough!’”
Problems began early in the session, as a commission still controlled by the ruling party said it would not swear in deputies from Amazon State — home to three opposition and one ruling-party congressman — due to legal challenges.
The decision is seen by some as an administration attempt to deny the opposition a powerful two-thirds majority.
Moments later, debates broke out after the opposition coalition nominated political veteran Henry Ramos Allup to be president of the body.
Héctor Rodríguez, the head of the ruling party’s delegation, said the 72-year-old Ramos represented a step backward toward neo-liberal economic policies.
“You put this country on its knees before the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank,” he said, citing Ramos’ track-record in congress in the 1990s. “You put this nation on its knees before the empire of the United States.”
“How can this person represent change in Venezuela when he’s a liar and a traitor?” he asked.
The opposition fired back, saying 17 years of socialist rule had run the economy into the ground, produced shortages of even the most basic goods and had saddled the country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
“The immense majority gave us the mandate to change because they don’t want to continue this government model which represents scarcity, high cost of living, insecurity and corruption,” said opposition deputy Omar Barboza.
Shortly afterward, amid shouting and shoving over congressional procedures, the ruling party stormed out of the building.
Outgoing President Diosdado Cabello — considered Venezuela’s second-most powerful man — said the opposition had violated the rules by ceding the floor to one of its deputies rather than simply swearing in congress.
“They have no respect for the constitution,” Cabello said. “All they’re interested in is provocation.”
Tensions have been running high here since the opposition won a landslide victory Dec. 6, capturing 112 out of 167 seats.
Both sides had called for rallies on Tuesday outside the National Assembly, sparking fears that there might be street clashes.
President Nicolás Maduro had asked his followers to remain peaceful and security was tight around the building. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were no major reports of violence even as tempers ran high.
As Ramos entered the building ahead of being named president, Mary Mujica, 65, chanted “Mano dura!,”or, roughly, “Hit them hard!”
As she caught her breath, Mujica said that 17 years of socialist rule had her exasperated.
“I have to wait in line for everything and there’s nothing, there’s no chicken, there’s no medicine, there’s nothing,” she said. “The government has had its foot on our necks for too long.”
Maduro has long blamed the opposition for those problems and on Monday night he said the new legislators had a “hidden agenda” to dismantle the administration’s socialist reforms by choking off financing from congress.
“They’ve come to sabotage us, so that money doesn’t flow,” he said in the nationally-televised address. “They’ve come to change laws that are fundamental for the revolution.”
Maduro said he might declare an “economic emergency” in coming days.
Providing an overview of upcoming legislation, members of the opposition seemed determined to fight Maduro on his own turf — claiming they will improve on existing social “missions.”
Borges, the majority leader, said they will promote a law to give property titles to people living in government-funded housing projects, and they will offer food and medical assistance to 3 million retirees. The bloc also hopes to jump-start the ailing economy by reviewing government projects.
“It’s not possible that there are 4 million hectares [nearly 10 million acres] laying fallow and that 1,200 factories that the government has expropriated aren’t producing food,” he said.
“This crisis, which began because of your missteps and corruption, has to change,” Borges said, claiming the social programs were more about political dominance than poverty alleviation.
Also at the top of the list when congress’ first regular session begins Wednesday is the “law for amnesty and reconciliation.” It might allow the release of more than 70 people the opposition considers political prisoners.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed politician Leopoldo López, was in congress waving a banner that read: “Amnesty Now!”
Cabello said the law would release criminals who were behind the deaths of more than 40 people amid national protests in 2014.
“This is ridiculous and absurd,” he said of the proposal. “This is the victimizers pardoning themselves.”
The shifting political landscape comes as the country is in a deep crisis, facing a shrinking economy, soaring inflation and rampant crime.
At a pro-government rally a few blocks away, Magali Graterol said most of the problems could be blamed on right-wing agitators and saboteurs.
“The opposition didn’t win the elections, the economic war won the elections,” she said repeating an oft-made government claim. “A lot of people are really sorry now that they voted for them.”