All-powerful Venezuela assembly meets again as pressure mounts

UN slams ‘widespread and systematic use of excessive force’

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Venezuelan pro-government activists rally to express their support to the Constituent Assembly in Caracas on Monday. — AFP

CARACAS — Foreign ministers from 14 nations were meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis, while President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.

The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting on Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew condemnation from many of the same regional governments that are sending representatives to the meeting in Peru’s capital.

Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.

Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the constitutional assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

The new constitutional assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.

“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters on Monday.

In Geneva, the UN human rights office said it has unearthed “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators and detainees in Venezuela.

Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says preliminary findings suggest there are “no signs” that the situation was improving. The rights office team said Tuesday that violations included “house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests.”

A full report on the team’s findings is expected later this month.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, vowed to remain in their posts in their only government foothold — the country’s single-chamber congress, the National Assembly.

John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro’s administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.

The opposition-dominated National Assembly “will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,” Magdaleno said.

National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers Monday that they should keep an active presence in the legislative palace despite threats from the constitutional assembly to 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. “It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.” — AP


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