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Hopes for dialogue between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition-controlled National Assembly evaporated just minutes after the new legislature was sworn in on Tuesday, January 5. In a dispute over a procedural matter, pro-Maduro legislators walked out.
These legislators, who belong to Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), rose to leave just as the assembly’s majority leader, Julio Borges, was detailing the opposition’s legislative agenda, including an amnesty law to free political prisoners. Borges was not shaken as PSUV legislators exited amid catcalls and insults. “The people elected us to make a change,” Borges said. “And that is what we are going to do.”
Few analysts predicted a smooth transition from the PSUV, which lost its legislative majority for the first time in 17 years and now holds 54 seats to the opposition Democratic Unity’s 109. However, the speed at which yesterday’s rupture occurred surprised many.
The events have lowered expectations (which were already fairly low) that Democratic Unity would be able to follow up on much of its ambitious platform. In addition to the amnesty law, Borges has said that the opposition would also press for a law that would give people who have received public housing the title to their apartments or houses and for legislation that would increase benefits for senior citizens.
He also aims to rejuvenate the national economy, which was estimated to have contracted by ten percent last year, by returning companies nationalized by the government to their previous owners and by overhauling currency controls. Massive shortages of food, medicine, and spare parts have forced Venezuelans to pass hours each day in long lines in search of hard-to-find products.
Even if it will be hard to follow through on those promises, there were at least some cosmetic changes at yesterday’s session. For the first time in years, journalists from the international and national press corps were allowed inside the assembly to cover the event. Previously, only journalists from government organs were allowed entry.
Further, a huge photo of the late Hugo Chávez that had loomed over the assembly floor since his death in March 2013 was missing. This was a big slap in the face to the PSUV, which reveres Chávez as its founding father—on par with Simon Bolivar, the founder of modern-day Venezuela. No explanation was given about the removal.
Meanwhile, outside the National Assembly, thousands of supporters of both the PSUV and Democratic Unity demonstrated in different zones, separated by police and National Guardsmen. Maduro’s supporters earlier painted graffiti throughout the zone, warning opposition backers that the National Assembly area was “Chávez territory.” And opposition backers ignored the graffiti, saying that the National Assembly belonged to them now, as they form the majority.
Maduro’s forces closed many subway stations in the area, presumably to make it more difficult for the opposition forces, who live in other parts of the city, to attend the investiture. And moves like this remind observers that Venezuela is still the PSUV’s country—and will likely remain so. After all, before the swearing in of the new legislatures, the PSUV, which held a three-fifths majority in the outgoing assembly, rushed through the appointment of 13 Supreme Court justices, who will presumably be eager to strike down any legislation that Maduro doesn’t like.
After promising to abide by the results of the election, meanwhile, the PSUV reversed course and filed suit with the Supreme Court, challenging the election of four legislators. If the Democratic Unity were stripped of three legislators, it would lose its two-thirds supermajority in the assembly, which would hamper its ability to make major changes.
Putting further pressure on the opposition is Maduro’s plan to create a new communal parliament, which would act as a parallel legislature tasked with deepening the revolution and presumably enhancing the PSUV’s power, and his pledge to declare a national emergency to tackle the country’s economic woes and reshuffle his economic cabinet. Opposition leaders have ridiculed Maduro’s economic proposal, noting that he has had two years to pass economic changes and hasn’t.
According to the assembly’s president, Henry Ramos Allup, the assembly has set a six-month deadline to change the government—that is, to remove Maduro. They have two possible paths: to call an assembly and rewrite the constitution or to start recall proceedings against Maduro. Both courses would be difficult. But the assembly meets again tomorrow, and is expected to tackle the issue of the four legislators from Amazonas.