Defying the U.S. and international community, Venezuela installed a new legislative body Friday that will have virtually unlimited power to rewrite the South American nation’s constitution and eliminate the last remnants of its democracy.
Delegates to the new national constituent assembly, elected Sunday under suspected fraud, were sworn in early Friday afternoon during a pomp-filled ceremony inside the gold-domed legislative palace in downtown Caracas, the nation’s capital. All 545 delegates streamed into the building together, each holding a red flower. Socialist party leaders held portraits of the late President Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar.
“¡Viva Chávez!” they proclaimed after singing the national anthem.
Chosen to preside over the assembly was Delcy Rodríguez, a former foreign minister, who declared the legislative body “arrived to impose justice.”
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“Imperialist powers are reluctant to recognize the Venezuelan people,” she said in her inaugural speech. “This constituent assembly will make sure to let them know what Venezuelans are made of.”
“In Venezuela there is no hunger: In Venezuela, there’s willpower,” she insisted, despite widespread malnutrition and shortages of food and medicine. “There’s no humanitarian crisis: There’s a crisis of the political right.”
Outside, supporters of President Nicolás Maduro, clad in the ruling socialist party’s signature red, surrounded the building and celebrated with tricolor flags, live music and spontaneous dancing. They were protected by state security forces, who set up barricades blocks away.
Opposition lawmakers weren’t in session Friday. But they continued to pledge that they would remain meeting at the legislative palace to defend their seats in the democratically elected National Assembly. The new constituent assembly was installed in a room just steps from where parliament meets. Rodríguez said the session would begin Saturday.
On Friday afternoon, the opposition kicked off a somber, short-lived and smaller-than-expected protest. As groups across eastern Caracas tried unsuccessfully to march to the legislative palace, Bolivarian National Police forces launched tear gas and pellets to disperse them.
“We can’t stay home with our arms crossed. We’re fighting to get these criminals out — this is a government of murderous drug traffickers,” said one of the protesters, 47-year-old Adriana Marcano, who like several others expressed exasperation with opposition leaders. “I hope none of it has been in vain. We need to honor all those dead young men.”
Leaders tried to motivate frustrated supporters who demonstrated — to no avail — for nearly four months and suffered through more than 120 deaths to keep the new assembly from grabbing power.
“We’ve got to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off,” Freddy Guevara, the parliament’s vice president, told reporters. “Let’s not give up due to exhaustion or hopelessness.”
He and other leaders called for renewed emphasis on street protests to keep other countries’ attention on Venezuela’s political crisis.
“We’ve never had this sort of support from the international community,” he said. “That international pressure should be backed with street pressure.”
The Vatican became the latest country Friday to urge Maduro to suspend the new assembly, elected in a vote boycotted by the opposition that was widely seen as fraudulent. Numerous countries in Latin America and Europe have threatened sanctions against Venezuela.
The Trump administration has already frozen Maduro’s U.S. assets and signaled more penalties to come, including sanctions against all or some of the assembly’s delegates — a list that includes Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, and powerful socialist congressman Diosdado Cabello. Even state-run television boasted of a delegate from its ranks.
Maduro and members of his inner circle have said that among the new assembly’s first moves will be to dissolve the National Assembly, prosecute opposition lawmakers and dismiss or jail Luisa Ortega, the country’s chief prosecutor. Maduro and his allies control every other public institution.
Ortega launched a criminal investigation Wednesday into the contested election, and filed a court motion Thursday to try to block the new assembly’s installation. As expected, it was rejected. At least 10 people died on Election Day in skirmishes with government forces.
Hours before Friday’s installation ceremony and without explanation, the government returned Antonio Ledezma to house arrest. Ledezma is one of two high-profile opposition leaders who were jailed after being seized from their homes in predawn raids Tuesday.
Seating the assembly was a somewhat chaotic affair, with reporters and delegates struggling to make their way into the legislative palace.
“The people demand justice and an iron fist,” delegate Iris Varela told reporters on her way in, “and justice and an iron fist is what they’ll get!”
Another delegate, Oscar Schemer, said he’d back a “truth commission” to prosecute people he claimed were behind the deadly civil unrest in the country.
“Those responsible for promoting and instigating violence must pay for their crimes,” he said in an interview. “We must pursue justice and end impunity.”
Presiding officers were sworn in one by one, each uttering a slightly different oath to Bolívar, Chávez, the “Bolivarian revolution” or, simply, “Nicolás.”
“They can name the queen of carnival. They can proclaim Maduro as the new intergalactic king,” Guevara, the opposition lawmaker, countered. “That’s their problem.”
A small group of socialist parliament members who broke with their party over the new assembly called for an election audit and pledged to remain in session, even outside the legislative palace.
“The National Assembly can’t legally lose its power,” Germán Ferrer, a congressman from Lara state, told reporters. “If the National Electoral Council members can’t deliver the truth, then they should step aside.”
Maduro fans taking part in Friday’s government-sponsored festivities, including a march to the legislative palace, repeated the president’s contention that the new assembly would quell nearly four months of unrest. Oil-rich Venezuela has been plagued by skyrocketing inflation and rampant crime amid an economic collapse caused by government mismanagement and plunging oil prices.
“I voted for peace for my country,” said 20-year-old Danielys Gallardo, who traveled to the installation from her home state of Portuguesa, where she serves on a local socialist community council. “I’ve been really disappointed with all the young people protesting in the streets.”
Gallardo, sporting a red cap and painted Venezuelan flags on both her cheeks, had trouble explaining what the new assembly would do — “Each delegate is going to bring a proposal, an idea, to end this war,” she said — and rejected that their election had been fixed.
“For me, there wasn’t fraud because I voted,” she said. “If there were fraud, President Chávez wouldn’t have won 17 years ago.”
Smartmatic, the London-based company that provides Venezuela with its voting software and machines, said in a stunning admission Wednesday that the results had been inflated by at least 1 million of a purported nearly 8.1 million votes. The company told the Wall Street Journal it chartered a private plane to whisk its Venezuelan employees out of the country Tuesday night. National elections chief Tibisay Lucena dismissed fraud claims and threatened legal action against the firm.
In a statement Thursday, the State Department said it considers the assembly “the illegitimate product of a flawed process designed by the Maduro dictatorship to further its assault on democracy.” The election, it said, “was rigged from the start.” Jorge Arreaza, the newly named Venezuelan foreign minister, tweeted in Spanish and English that the American position is “irrelevant.”
“We do not accept aggressions to our sovereignty, even less those coming from an unpopular and crumbling government such as Mr. Trump’s.”
Mazzei reported from Miami.