All-powerful Venezuelan assembly opens amid protests

Venezuela's ruling party has installed a new super assembly that supporters promise will bring peace to the country and critics fear will be a tool for imposing dictatorship.

All-powerful Venezuelan assembly opens amid protests

Venezuela's ruling party has installed a new super assembly that supporters promise will bring peace to the country and critics fear will be a tool for imposing dictatorship.

The constitutional assembly's first order of business was selecting its head - former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez, a loyal follower of President Nicolas Maduro.

The nomination was approved unanimously by the 545 delegates, who marched to the legislative palace accompanied by hundreds of red-shirted government supporters carrying roses and giant portraits of the late Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro's predecessor and mentor.

The assembly was scheduled to meet again on Saturday, and Ms Rodriguez pledged it would take action against Mr Maduro's political opponents.

"Don't think we're going to wait weeks, months or years," she said. "Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you."

The installation of the all-powerful constitutional assembly is likely to intensify a political crisis that has brought four months of protests that left at least 120 people dead and hundreds jailed.

Mr Maduro vows the assembly will strip opposition politicians of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, while members of congress say they will only be removed by force.

But the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government's strong-armed tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions.

Several opposition activists have been jailed in recent days, others are rumoured to be seeking exile and one leader has broken ranks to say his party will field candidates in regional elections despite widespread mistrust in Venezuela's electoral system.

In a sign of its apparent demoralised state only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for Friday's protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. They were halted by security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

"This is what the constitutional assembly will bring: more repression," said opposition politician Miguel Pizarro.

Mr Maduro accuses his opponents of using violence and argues the constitutional assembly is the best way to restore peace.

On Friday he heralded members of the security forces who have been on the front lines of the daily street battles, claiming 580 of them had suffered serious injuries from brutal attacks by "terrorist" protesters.

"I feel deeply the wounds of each one of you," Mr Maduro said addressing a small group of injured national guardsmen scarred with burns, on crutches and wearing neck braces.

Amid the rising tensions, an increasing number of foreign governments have sided with the opposition, refusing to recognise the constitutional assembly and further isolating Mr Maduro's government.

On Friday, the Vatican urged him to suspend the new body, expressing "deep worry for the radicalisation and worsening" of the turmoil in Venezuela.

President Donald Trump and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, agreed that Mr Maduro must restore the rights of the Venezuelan people in a phone call to discuss several international crises.

Foreign ministers from several South American nations will gather on Saturday in Brazil for an emergency meeting to decide whether to evict Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc for violating its democratic norms. Venezuela was suspended from the group in December.

The opposition boycotted the July 30 election of the constitutional assembly, saying the rules were rigged to further entrench Mr Maduro's "dictatorship".

The constitutional assembly is made up of an array of pro-government trade unionists, students and even representatives of Venezuelans with physical disabilities.

But the agenda is expected to be set by bigger-name loyalists, including Mr Maduro's wife, son and several ministers who resigned their posts to join the body.

It will have sweeping powers and in theory could even remove Mr Maduro, a fact held up by government supporters as proof that it is not a partisan power grab.

PA

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