Socialists Tighten Grip on Venezuela as US-Backed Opposition Falls in Shady Election


Parading giant portraits of Hugo Chavez and independence hero Simon Bolivar, allies of Nicolas Maduro retook control of Venezuela’s congress on Tuesday, the last institution in the country they didn’t already control.

The ruling socialist party claimed to have avenged the humiliating defeat suffered five years ago when government opponents won control of the legislature and proceeded to remove portraits of the two national icons in a fierce challenge to Maduro’s power.

Jorge Rodriguez, the incoming assembly president, vowed to “exorcise” from the legislative palace all vestiges of its previous occupants, who he accused of plotting Maduro’s violent overthrow with the help of foreign mercenaries and the Trump administration.

Maduro’s allies swept legislative elections last month which were boycotted by the opposition and denounced as a sham by the U.S., the European Union and several other foreign governments.

The vote, marred by just 30 percent turnout, nonetheless defeated the U.S.-backed opposition led by lawmaker Juan Guaidó.

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Exactly a year ago, Guaidó tried to scale a spiked iron fence to get past riot police blocking him from attending the parliament’s inaugural session, which according to the constitution must be held every year on Jan. 5.

He held his own virtual parliamentary session on Tuesday with a cohort of opposition leaders.

“They are trying to annihilate Venezuela’s democratic force,” Guaidó said in his online address. “But we aren’t going to give up.”

The Trump administration has doubled down in its support of Guaidó.

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“We consider this group to be illegitimate and will not recognize it nor its pronouncements,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, referring to the pro-Maduro assembly.

“President Guaidó and the National Assembly are the only democratic representatives of the Venezuelan people as recognized by the international community, and they should be freed from Maduro’s harassment, threats, persecution, and other abuses.”

The opposition’s political fortunes have tanked. Recent opinion polls show support for Guaidó has fallen by more than half since he first rose to challenge Maduro two years ago.

Meanwhile, Maduro has managed to retain a solid grip on power and the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela.

Gaby Arellano, a lawmaker exiled in Colombia, said many in the opposition underestimated Maduro, thinking he stood no chance in a doomsday economic environment marked by hyperinflation, miles-long lines for gasoline and wages worth just a few pennies per month.

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But Maduro has managed to outmaneuver his foes through a mix of repression and the opposition’s own missteps, Arellano said. She expects a new round of repression now that Maduro has seized congress.

Reflecting the lack of unity in the opposition, a few lawmakers still inside Venezuela — including Guaidó’s former deputy as National Assembly vice president — signaled they would no longer lay claim to their seats.

“We’re at the start of what looks like a very dark new phase,” Arellano said.

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