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Dueling Factions in Venezuela Stake Claims at Power

  • Associated Press

Opposition lawmaker Henry Ramos Allup speaks from the podium during a session of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 7, 2017.

Pro and anti-government factions dug themselves further into their trenches Monday amid Venezuela's deepening political crisis, with each side staking a claim to the powers granted them by dueling national assemblies.

The new chief prosecutor who replaced an outspoken government critic outlined plans for restructuring the Public Ministry, and the opposition-controlled National Assembly vowed to continue meeting at the stately legislative palace — a short walk across a plaza from where the all-powerful constitutional assembly is expected to hold its next meeting Tuesday.

National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers they should keep an active presence in the building despite threats from the new assembly to swiftly strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the "symbol of popular sovereignty."

"We are a testament to the fight for democracy," he said at a meeting cobbled together amid mounting uncertainty about the legislature's future. "It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate."

In theory, both the National Assembly and the pro-government constitutional assembly can rule simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election that drew international condemnation has the authority to trump any other branch of government.

Since its installation Friday, it has signaled that it will act swiftly in response to President Nicolas Maduro's commands, which have included stripping legislators of their constitutional immunity.

Diosdado Cabello, a constitutional assembly member and a leader of the socialist party, said the new body would be in power for "at least two years." He defended initial decrees to oust top law enforcement officer Luisa Ortega Diaz and create a "truth commission" that will wield unusual authority to prosecute those suspected of fueling recent political unrest.

Cabello said the decisions all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chavez.

"This is a completely legal process," he said.

Ortega Diaz's replacement, Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by Washington for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation's top human rights official, appeared on state television to both chastise the leader of the agency he will oversee and announce his plans to revamp it.

He criticized Ortega Diaz for "fanning the flames" of political conflict in Venezuela and said he would proceed with a "logical restructuring" of an office he deemed overly political and bureaucratic.

Ortega Diaz is not recognizing Saab as attorney general, and both opposition leaders and foreign dignitaries have said they will not acknowledge him as Venezuela's chief prosecutor.

The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to declare whether or not they will take part in scheduled December regional elections. Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on whether or not to take part in the upcoming vote for governors.

While Maduro's popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in an election they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly is being questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were "without a doubt" tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.

On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks' weapons supply. Ten escaped, two were killed, another was injured and the remaining seven battled with soldiers for three hours before being captured, Maduro said.

In his weekly broadcast, Maduro said the men would get the "maximum penalty."

A video showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, some carrying rifles, began circulating widely on social media around the time of the attack. In the recording, a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said they were members of the military who oppose Maduro's socialist government and urged military units to declare themselves in open rebellion.

"This is not a coup d'etat," the man said. "This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order."

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez characterized the attackers as a "paramilitary" expedition, saying the intruders were civilians dressed in uniforms. He did not identify any of them but said they included a lieutenant who had abandoned his post. He said the man who recorded the video was a former officer dismissed three years ago after being charged with rebellion and betraying the homeland.

Freddy Guevara, the first vice president of the National Assembly, said the attack as a worrisome development.

"When people feel that all recourse, electoral and constitutional, are closed off, they can be tempted to support this kind of method," he said. "Because they feel that there isn't another."

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