Pro-government protesters storm Venezuelan National Assembly
A handful of Venezuelan lawmakers were beaten and bloodied by an angry mob Wednesday that brazenly laid siege to the National Assembly as security forces looked on.
The attack came on Venezuela’s independence day and as opposition lawmakers are struggling to block President Nicolás Maduro’s plans to overhaul the constitution in what many fear is another power grab.
According to eye-witnesses and video of the scene, a group of masked men who appeared to be pro-government militias, known as colectivos, began attacking people around the National Assembly with fists, flagpoles and sticks. The congress’ official Twitter account said a dozen people had been hurt, including five lawmakers, but other reports put the number of injured congressmen at four. Photographs from inside the chamber showed lawmakers slumped in chairs with blood-soaked shirts, and bloody handprints smeared across the walls.
Local media reported that some of the attackers forced their way into the building in downtown Caracas.
Among the victims was Armando Armas, an opposition congressman from Anzoátegui state.
“Being struck is nothing compared to the almost 100 young people who have been assassinated by repression and this dictatorship,” he said in a statement. “It hurts, but it hurts worse to see the country bleeding.”
Journalists trying to cover the event also reported being mugged and roughed up by the crowd.
In a televised speech from the traditional independence day military parade, Maduro condemned the violence, but he also called on the opposition to rein in its own.
“I want the right-wing to condemn and disarm groups that have led to the death of young people,” he said.
Venezuela has been locked in more than three months of anti-government protests that have left more than 80 dead and thousands detained. Many of the fatalities have come as anti-government agitators, some of them just in their teens, face off with security forces armed with riot guns and tear gas.
Protesters are demanding general elections, humanitarian aid and the release of political prisoners. Maduro and his socialist administration, meanwhile, are digging in and pursuing unpopular plans to overhaul the constitution. Key to that plan are elections on July 30th to choose more than 500 delegates who will be charged with rewriting the 1999 constitution.
The opposition, and even some within the ruling PSUV party, fear the administration will use the deliberations as an excuse to cancel or delay upcoming elections, including the 2018 presidential vote.
Also on Wednesday, a video began circulating of Oscar Pérez, the police inspector who allegedly commandeered a helicopter and attacked the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry last week.
Sitting beneath the Venezuelan flag and wearing green fatigues, Pérez said he was hiding in Caracas and prepared to begin the “second phase” of his plan to topple the socialist administration.
And he warned the nation against allowing the constitutional rewrite to move forward.
“If this constitutional assembly goes through, Venezuela will cease to exist because we’ll have given away the country to the Cubans and the small corrupt group that is selling out our government and the future of our country,” he said.
The opposition is calling for more protests and demonstrations to try to derail the government’s plans. They’re also calling for a national referendum July 16 to let Venezuelans decide if they want the constitutional body. Maduro has said that referendum is illegal, and the National Electoral Council has said it won’t sanction the vote, making it merely symbolic.
Even so, Venezuela’s opposition congressmen rallied after Wednesday’s attack and voted to let the referendum move forward.
“Once again they’ve violently taken over a democratic institution in this country,” National Assembly President Julio Borges wrote on Twitter. “This is the violence of Maduro.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss