Venezuela Opposition Controls Congress After 17 Years

January 5, 2016 Updated: January 5, 2016
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CARACAS, Venezuela—Venezuela’s opposition took majority control of the National Assembly, setting the stage for a potential power struggle with socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

With tensions running high inside the dome-roofed legislature and dueling demonstrations by government supporters and opponents outside, lawmakers took their oath Tuesday, Jan. 5. A group of pro-government lawmakers walked out in protest after storming the legislature’s dais as the new congressional leadership laid out its legislative agenda.

It’s the first time in 17 years that opponents of the socialist revolution begun by the late Hugo Chávez have controlled the legislature.

But the two-thirds majority it won last month, giving it a strong hand to rein in Maduro, was in doubt after a government-stacked Supreme Court at the last minute barred four lawmakers from taking their seats while it probes allegations of electoral fraud. As a result, only 163 of 167 lawmakers were sworn in Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of opposition supporters accompanied the incoming lawmakers past a heavy military barricade to the legislature downtown. A few blocks away, a larger crowd of government supporters gathered outside the presidential palace to lament the inauguration of what they called the “bourgeois parliament.”

Reflecting the changing political winds, journalists for the first time in years were granted access to the legislature and state TV broadcast interviews with the opposition political leaders.

Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, holds up a sign that reads in Spanish; "Amnesty now!," as the National Assembly convenes, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, holds up a sign that reads “Amnesty now!” as the National Assembly convenes, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Conspicuously absent inside the dome-roofed legislative building were the oversized portraits of Chávez and independence hero Simón Bolívar that had been a fixture for years.

Instead, from the public gallery, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López held up a sign reading “Amnesty Now,” referring to what’s likely to be the legislature’s first order of business: a law freeing dozens of activists jailed during anti-government unrest in 2014.

“Keep a strong hand!” 65-year-old Mary Mujica shouted as the incoming parliamentary president, Henry Ramos, wiggled his way through the heavy crowd. “There’s a criminal conspiracy running the country and you can’t negotiate with criminals.”

Incoming opposition lawmakers are promising to use their new muscle to make sweeping changes, while the socialist party of current President Nicolás Maduro has been equally adamant that the legislature not back Chávez’s revolution.

The Supreme Court last week barred four lawmakers, including three from the opposition, from taking their seats. The move was in response to a challenge by supporters of the socialists who accuse the opposition of stealing the Dec. 6 legislative election, and could effectively snatch away the opposition’s two-thirds majority.

On Monday, Ramos said Maduro should consider resigning to save Venezuela from a political crisis, echoing the call hard-liners made in 2014 when they launched street protests that resulted in dozens of deaths.

Ramos is a pre-Chávez era politician who in 2005 was among promoters of an electoral boycott that handed almost unanimous control of the legislature to the government. It was a tactical move that  he and much of the opposition later came to regret.

The coalition’s more moderate wing has lambasted the hard-liners’ strategy of trying to force Maduro from office and wants to take pragmatic steps to wrench the oil-dependent economy out of a tailspin marked by triple-digit inflation and the world’s deepest recession.

At the top of their agenda is freeing jailed opposition activists they … consider political prisoners.

The factions have agreed on a basic agenda that includes probing government corruption, pushing for the release of central bank data, and giving Maduro a six-month deadline to rescue the economy.

But at the top of their agenda is freeing jailed opposition activists they and many human rights groups consider political prisoners.

“It’s completely illogical,” said outgoing National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello of the proposed amnesty law. “It’s like the assassins pardoning themselves.”

Jennifer McCoy, a longtime observer of Venezuela elections for a pro-democracy group founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said the coming weeks will tell whether the government and opposition can put aside their mutual hatred.

“This is the moment when both sides need to determine how to move forward: whether they are going to work together or engage in a battle royal,” said McCoy, who is now director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University.

The socialists began fighting the new congress almost as soon as it was voted in. Outgoing lawmakers appointed new Supreme Court judges and changed the ownership of the National Assembly’s TV station. Maduro on Monday issued decrees limiting congress’s power over the central bank.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Monday that it was concerned by the Maduro government’s attempts to interfere with the new congress, drawing a sharp rebuke from Venezuela’s president.

Maduro was nevertheless conciliatory in a national television address Monday, saying he had instructed the military to guarantee the opposition access to the National Assembly so it can be seated peacefully.

But pro-government militias, dubbed by Chávez as “the armed wing of the revolution,” called on their supporters to stage a counter-protest.

“The revolution must be defended in the streets,” read one pro-government call circulated Monday. “A bourgeoisie congress will never do anything but legislate the slavery of the people.”