CARACAS, Venezuela — The government of President Nicolás Maduro staged a de facto takeover of Venezuela’s legislature on Sunday, swearing in its own candidate as head of the National Assembly in a move apparently orchestrated to rob international credibility from Juan Guaidó, who had led the body and has staked a rival claim as head of state.

The dramatic events marked a sharp escalation in Maduro’s gambit to end Guaidó’s quest to unseat him and stoked immediate outrage in Washington – which has strongly backed Guaidó and condemned Sunday’s action. Opposition officials declared the move an effective “parliamentary coup” meant to consolidate Maduro’s near-dictatorial powers.

“Today, they dismantled the rule of law, assassinating the republic, with the complicity of a group of traitor lawmakers,” Guaidó told reporters outside the parliamentary building.

The replacement of Guaidó amounted to a bait and switch. On Sunday, he began the day anticipating his re-election as head of the National Assembly, viewed internationally as the last democratic institution in the authoritarian South American state. Guaidó’s claim as the nation’s true president – recognized by nearly 60 countries, including the United States – has been based on his status as the assembly’s chief.

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National Assembly President Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader, tries to climb the fence to enter the compound of the Assembly, after he and other opposition lawmakers were blocked by police from entering a session Sunday to elect new Assembly leadership in Caracas, Venezuela. With Guaido stuck outside, a rival slate headed by lawmaker Luis Parra swore themselves in as leaders of the single-chamber legislature. Matias Delacroix/Associated Press

But security forces loyal to Maduro formed a cordon around the assembly building in central Caracas, blocking opposition lawmakers – who control the chamber – from entering. Lawmakers who back Maduro – including several allegedly involved in a government plot to buy votes – were allowed to pass. At one point, Guaidó sought to scale the spiked wrought-iron fence surrounding the assembly, trying to force his way in and shredding the jacket of his business suit.

At the same time, Luis Parra – a former opposition politician who was one of several lawmakers accused last month of accepting government bribes – announced his surprise candidacy against Guaidó on Twitter on Sunday morning. Hours later, his swearing-in was suddenly shown on state television.

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Parra is thought to have had the support of at least 40 lawmakers from Maduro’s party and an unknown number of others who the opposition claims have been bribed. But there was no evidence that an actual vote had taken place. The opposition insisted that even if one had happened, any vote would be illegal because there was no quorum of lawmakers in the chamber.

“Today, we want to open the doors to the future of this parliament,” Parra said in televised remarks after his swearing-in. “To the people that today expected a different message, we will continue to seek reconciliation”

Opposition officials said Guaidó would seek to counter Sunday’s move by gathering as many lawmakers as possible at the headquarters of El Nacional, a local newspaper, to hold their own vote on the chamber’s leadership.

The government’s action appeared designed to complicate Guaidó’s international recognition and provide some nations that might be considering pulling their support for him additional legal cover to do so. But the move also creates new and major logistical and technical hurdles for an already beleaguered opposition, not least of which being how and where to continue meeting and passing legislation should opposition lawmakers manage to keep holding regular sessions elsewhere in the capital.

But his strongest backers – particularly in Washington – were already disregarding Sunday’s maneuvers in the National Assembly as dictatorial theatrics and promised to redouble their support for Guaidó. The move comes as the United States – which has slapped tough sanctions on Maduro’s government, including an oil embargo – is weighing more confrontational steps, including a possible naval blockade of Venezuelan oil being shipped to Cuba, the Maduro government’s chief regional ally.

“What the regime is doing now at the National Assembly goes completely against the will of the people and the laws that govern the process,” the U.S. mission to Venezuela, based in Colombia since the severing of diplomatic ties last year, said in a tweet. “Democracy can’t be intimidated.”

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National Assembly President Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader, argues with police Sunday as he and other lawmakers are stopped a few blocks from the Assembly. Andrea Hernandez Briceño/Associated Press

The Maduro government has made attempts to declaw the National Assembly since the opposition won a sweeping majority (112 of 167 lawmakers) in 2015. In 2016, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court officially stripped it of its legislative authority. A year later, the court announced it would dissolve the institution, a threat it never followed through on after the ruling generated internal controversy and street protests. In 2017, Maduro’s government created a “Constituent Assembly,” made up exclusively of its own backers, which sought to supplant the National Assembly’s authority.

But the opposition has managed to keep the institution at the center of its fight to oust Maduro, holding sessions weekly and using it as a legal backup to Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. It has given Guaidó constitutional legitimacy in the eyes of foreign powers, based on the fact that he and his supporters were elected by a majority in 2015 – the last time a vote here was seen as generally democratic.

The bold move to strip Guaidó of his leadership in the assembly comes at a dangerous time for the opposition. After a year in which many Venezuelans believe he overpromised how quickly Maduro could be forced from office, Guaidó’s popularity has sharply slipped. Attempts to turn the nation’s top military brass against Maduro have thus far failed, and the opposition is reeling from accusations of turncoats and corruption within its ranks.

Last month, Parra was ejected from one of the main opposition parties, Primer Justicia, after being accused of accepting bribes in exchange for lobbying on behalf of pro-Maduro businessmen. Opposition officials also claim that he is one of several lawmakers who have accepted bribes to abandon Guaidó – an allegation Parra has denied even as he has begun to openly criticize Guaidó.

Guaidó’s team, in anticipation of victory on Sunday, had drafted plans to “relaunch” his presidency – including increasing the pressure on Maduro and spearheading more and better distribution of medicine and food in a nation brought to its knees by one of the world’s worst economic collapses in recent history.

“This won’t consolidate government’s power, nor will it clean its image internationally,” said Félix Seijas, political analyst and director of the Delphos polling agency. “If (the government’s) objective is to weaken the opposition leadership, whether that happens depends on the opposition’s next moves.”

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Few immediately saw Maduro as gaining international support from the move – in fact, many observers argue, the result is likely to be just the opposite. Yet it creates another problem for the beleaguered opposition.

“This is the equivalent of a coup against an institution that was legitimately elected,” said Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based Datanalisis polling agency. “We only add one more illegitimate institution to the game that will not be recognized by the opposition’s international allies.”

“But,” he added, “for an opposition that had already been weakened, this is not good news. It loses operational capacity and becomes more dependent on an international community that doesn’t have much more maneuvering power left.”

 

Faiola reported from Miami.


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