New assembly dividing Venezuela starts work

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‘Body breaching democratic order’

A National Guard motorcycle burns during clashes with opposition activists protesting against the newly installed Constituent Assembly, in Caracas on Aug 4. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro installed a powerful new assembly packed with his allies, dismissing an international outcry and opposition protests saying he is burying democracy in his crisis-hit country.(AFP)

CARACAS, Aug 5, (AFP): A new assembly packed with allies of unpopular President Nicolas Maduro and with sweeping powers was to begin work on Saturday, deepening divisions in a crisis-wracked Venezuela. The Constituent Assembly, headed by a former foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, is tasked with rewriting the 1999 constitution into a charter Maduro has promised will end the turmoil rocking his impoverished yet oilrich nation.

On Friday, the body took over an ornate chamber under a golden dome in the Legislative Palace in Caracas — at the far end of a building shared with the opposition-run legislature, the National Assembly.

Elected a week ago amid bloody protests and international objections, the Constituent Assembly has powers to override every branch of government, and can dissolve the legislature. Its detractors say the 545 loyalist members — among them the president’s wife and son — amount to a rubber-stamp entity extending Maduro’s “dictator”-like grip on power.

The United States, the European Union, the Vatican and major Latin American nations including Mexico, Argentina and Chile have all condemned the new body, saying it undermines democracy and stokes tensions in Venezuela. Mercosur, a South American trading bloc, was meeting on Saturday in Brazil to decide whether Venezuelan should be suspended from it for “breaching democratic order.”

The legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly has been thrown into question by claims of fraud, most notably by a British-based firm, Smartmartic, which was involved in supplying the technology for the July 30 vote. Smartmatic said the official turnout figure had been “tampered with” and exaggerated by at least one million voters. The opposition has vowed to maintain street protests against the assembly, despite being increasingly sidelined and despondent. Maduro’s security forces have stepped up pressure on dissenters. The Vatican has urged them to show restraint after a death toll from four months of unrest of 125. A prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was thrown back in military prison after the intelligence service roughly ended a brief spell of house arrest granted last month.

Another leader, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, was released back into home detention on Friday after being hauled away the same day as Lopez. Maduro has rejected the criticism lobbed at him, saying the revised constitution issued by the Constituent Assembly would be put to a referendum. He also accused the United States of “imperialism” after it hit him with direct sanctions and threatened to do the same with all of the assembly’s members. And he lashed out at fellow Latin American leaders for being vassals of America.

Rodriguez on Friday said: “The international community should not make a mistake over Venezuela. The message is clear, very clear: we Venezuelans will resolve our confl ict, our crisis without any form of foreign interference.” That confl ict runs deep however, and Maduro counts on no more than 20 percent public support, according to surveys by the Datanalisis polling firm.

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