Tuesday, 01 August 2017 09:50
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Venezuela’s Opposition, Battling Nicolás Maduro, Suffers a Crippling Blow Venezuela’s Opposition, Battling Nicolás Maduro, Suffers a Crippling Blow Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

 

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Just a year and a half ago, Venezuela’s opposition was riding high, at the apex of its power. It had taken control of the National Assembly after years of having been outflanked by Venezuela’s left. It was planning new laws, the release of its political prisoners and overhauls intended to pull Venezuela out of a deep economic crisis.

Its eye was on the presidency in 2018.

But with one contentious vote on Sunday, President Nicolás Maduro effectively liquidated any political challenge that the opposition might present for him for years to come. Around midnight, officials certified the creation of a new political body, known as the constituent assembly, with the power to rewrite the Constitution to favor Mr. Maduro and empowered in the meantime to dismiss any branch of government viewed as disloyal.

Early Tuesday, family members of two prominent opposition figures, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, said on Twitter that the men had been taken from their homes by security forces. Both men had been under house arrest.

It was a dramatic crash for the country’s opposition in its long quest to regain control of Venezuela after a tide of popular discontent brought Hugo Chávez to the presidency in 1999. Not since the politicians joined the military to back a failed coup in 2002 — which spurred Mr. Chávez to purge his opponents — have members of Venezuela’s opposition been laid so low.

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“They played all their cards, and they played them effectively,” said Christopher Sabatini, a foreign policy expert at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, citing the opposition’s attempts to parry Mr. Maduro this year. “But now all of their channels for representation and means for mediation have essentially evaporated.”

Mr. Maduro’s decision to sweep aside his rivals leaves them at a difficult crossroads, analysts said. Having finally succeeded at the ballot box after years of trying, the opposition finds itself having to contain popular anger on the streets, with some Venezuelans now insisting that violence is the best way to confront the president.

More than 120 people have already died in months of protests, with Sunday being the most deadly day of all.

As the dust settled on Monday and the crowds went home, opposition lawmakers were urging calm. They said they would not fight back even if the new constituent assembly were to force them from their chamber, as many radical leftists are now urging the assembly to do.

“If they come with arms to take control of the national legislative palace, we can find another place to hold our sessions,” Henry Ramos Allup, a prominent opposition lawmaker who until recently served as head of the National Assembly, told reporters.

Pressure was mounting on Mr. Maduro as well. On Monday afternoon, the United States Treasury Department added him to a growing list of Venezuelan officials facing sanctions, freezing any American assets the president owns and forbidding Americans to do business with him.

But while the White House had encouraged the Venezuelan opposition in recent days, the sanctions were far less severe than the crippling economic penalties it had threatened against Mr. Maduro before the vote on Sunday. Mr. Maduro is now one of only four heads of state to be sanctioned this way, including Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The limited American response left many of Mr. Maduro’s rivals pondering their future under the constituent assembly.

Among them was Luisa Ortega, the country’s leftist attorney general who turned against Mr. Maduro this year, calling his protests repressive and the constitutional vote illegal. On Sunday night, Mr. Maduro led chants against Ms. Ortega from a stage, saying the constituent assembly would soon remove her from office.

Ms. Ortega remained defiant. “It’s a joke to the people and their sovereignty,” she said of the vote. “Now we will see absolute power in the hands of a minority.”

Marco Bozo, a legislator from Primero Justicia, an opposition party, appeared to have accepted that the National Assembly would be replaced in the coming days and that the opposition’s options were limited.

“We have been resisting the government,” he said on Monday. “We will continue organizing protests in the streets.”

Yet street protests are becoming their own wild card, with calls for new elections having converged with concerns about hunger and a lack of medicine to fuel widening unrest. While opposition politicians now lead the protest movement, many fear that if they are weakened, more radical elements may take charge.

Venezuelans may have gotten a glimpse of this on June 27, when a rogue police officer commandeered a helicopter and flew it around Caracas, firing at government buildings.

While no one was injured in the attack, the pilot, Oscar Pérez, has since emerged as a kind of folk hero among many who oppose Mr. Maduro. He releases videos with rebellious messages, and he appeared at an opposition rally in July to an adoring crowd.

Riordan Roett, the director of the Latin American Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, said such actions played into the hands of Mr. Maduro, who has repeatedly called his rivals “terrorists” and has indicated that he would prefer to crush radicals with his security forces rather than negotiate with opposition politicians through mediators.

“The Chavistas will try to emasculate the democratic opposition, and they will have more draconian measures for the radical opposition,” he said.

Yet there are signs that Mr. Maduro’s moves may be radicalizing moderates within the opposition and that many voters may follow their lead.

On July 16, two weeks before Sunday’s vote, the opposition parties held a protest referendum, in which voters overwhelmingly rebuked Mr. Maduro and opposed his constituent assembly. Among the three questions in that vote was a vaguely worded one asking whether Venezuela’s military should “defend” the current Constitution and “back the decisions” of the National Assembly, which some interpreted as taking the temperature for support for military intervention.

“That kind of question is reminiscent of Pinochet and 1973,” Mr. Sabatini said, referring to the violence and unrest that took place after a military coup toppled an elected Chilean government and installed a dictatorship.

For their part, opposition lawmakers are getting ready for their new role as a protest movement, once they are stripped of any legislative powers.

“We are now acting through marches,” said Milagro Valero, an opposition lawmaker from the city of Mérida.

But because the government began to ban street protests during the election, it is unclear whether that option will remain for Mr. Maduro’s opponents.

 

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