Venezuela’s Maduro strikes back, charges opposition lawmakers with treason

The Venezuelan regime on Tuesday lashed out at its enemies, charging seven opposition lawmakers with treason and rebellion, a week after leader Nicolás Maduro survived a brief military uprising. But, keeping to form, authorities stopped short of going after Maduro’s immediate rival: interim President Juan Guaidó.

The move came as the International Contact Group — a European Union-backed organization — announced that it would continue to push for “credible negotiations with the goal of holding democratic elections” that might extricate Venezuela from a deep political and humanitarian crisis. Speaking after a two-day meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, the ICG said it would ask Maduro to “free political prisoners” and loosen his stranglehold on government institutions as a show of good will.

Many, including Guaidó, are wary of negotiations after attempts in 2014 and 2017 bought Maduro time and left the opposition divided.

The day began clouded by uncertainty as Maduro security forces barred the press from covering the weekly session of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. In an attempt to complete the blackout, websites that stream the session, including YouTube, were taken offline in Venezuela, the U.K.-based internet monitoring organization, Netblocks, reported. It’s a tactic that has become increasingly prevalent as Maduro tries to silence and undermine Guaidó.

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While congress was meeting, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court called an emergency session to hit seven opposition lawmakers with a raft of charges including treason, conspiracy and rebellion linked to last week’s uprising. Hours later, the National Constitutional Assembly — a super-body also controlled by Maduro loyalists — stripped the deputies of their parliamentary immunity, setting the stage for their arrest.

The move seems to confirm Maduro’s general strategy: going after associates and allies of Guaidó, without touching the 35-year-old politician himself.

Guaidó has been trying to oust Maduro since Jan. 23, when he said he was constitutionally bound to assume the presidency because Maduro had stolen last year’s election. The United States and more than 50 other nations now recognize Guaidó as the country’s sole leader and have suggested they would take severe measures against the regime if he were arrested or harmed.

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The seven deputies named by the court include some of Maduro’s most powerful critics: Henry Ramos Allup, Luis Germán Florido, Marianela Magallanes López, José Simón Calzadilla Peraza, Andrés Enrique Delgado Velázquez, Amerigo De Grazia and Richard José Blanco Delgado.

Speaking at the National Assembly, Allup said everything about the case was illegal because both the Attorney General and the members of the Supreme Court had never been approved by congress, as required under the constitution. In addition, the opposition argues that only the National Assembly has the ability to strip lawmakers of their immunity.

Guaidó said the government was hounding the opposition because it no longer had the ability to solve the country’s true problems, including massive water and power outages and grinding hunger.

“Today, hundreds of thousands of people won’t be able to feed themselves in Venezuela and the [regime’s] only response is to keep up the persecution,” Guaidó said. “They don’t care if you eat or if you have water.”

Also Tuesday, there were reports that the government was seizing three private airports — likely to keep them from being used in future ouster attempts of Maduro — and was scrapping the foreign exchange controls that have been in place since 2003. Economists had been calling for the end of those regulations for years, arguing that they had become a source of corruption for insiders who had access to the preferential exchange rate. In the long term, the move may stabilize the bolivar, but in the short term it’s likely to mean more hyper-inflationary pain for the country.

“As U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s Central Bank and other institutions have continued to tighten, Venezuela’s access to dollars has also become more difficult,” Caracas Capital Markets, a Venezuela-based brokerage wrote to its clients. “Now desperate for dollars and desperate to get control of the billions of remittance dollars sent back to support family still trapped in Venezuela, the Maduro Regime has now opened up the FX trading that has strangled the country.”

Washington has been ramping up personal, financial and oil sanctions on Venezuela, targeting dozens of current and former officials, including Maduro. But on Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury removed Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the former director general of Venezuela’s National Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, from its sanctions list.

Figuera — who had been hit with sanctions in February — supported Guaidó’s uprising last week and is thought to have fled the country.

“The delisting of [Figuera] also shows the good faith of the United States that removal of sanctions may be available for designated persons who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate Maduro regime, or combat corruption in Venezuela,” the Treasury Department said.