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Guaido blocked from Venezuela’s congress as impasse deepens

National Assembly President Juan Guaido, Venezuela's opposition leader, tries to climb a fence to enter the compound of the Assembly after he and other opposition lawmakers were blocked by police from entering a session to elect new Assembly leadership in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. With Guaido stuck outside, a rival slate headed by lawmaker Luis Parra swore themselves in as leaders of the single-chamber legislature.

MATIAS DELACROIX/AP

By FABIOLA SANCHEZ AND JOSHUA GOODMAN | Associated Press | Published: January 5, 2020

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó was violently blocked Sunday from presiding over a special session of congress in which rivals tried to install a substitute in what was condemned as a hijacking of the country’s last democratic institution.

Guaidó led a small group of lawmakers trying to access the neoclassical palace where the opposition-controlled National Assembly was set to elect its leader for the final year of its 2015-2020 period when they were pushed back by national guardsmen wielding heavy riot shields. As scuffles broke out, the U.S.-backed leader tried to mount an iron fence surrounding the legislature, only to be repelled again.

Inside, the situation was similarly rowdy, as a rival slate headed by lawmaker Luis Parra tried to swear themselves in as legislative leaders with the support of socialist deputies loyal to President Nicolás Maduro.

Lacking quorum, there was no valid vote for Parra, the opposition said. Guaidó, who, despite some defections, still enjoys a comfortable majority in the 167-seat assembly, immediately denounced the impromptu session as little more than a “show” carried out by a group of “traitors” in cahoots with Maduro.

“This is nothing more than another blow to our constitution,” said Guaidó, whose blue suit was ripped during the chaotic standoff.

Still, senior Maduro officials celebrated the bizarre gambit as a comeuppance for the 36-year-old lawmaker, who has been struggling to maintain unity in the unwieldy opposition coalition.

Meanwhile, Parra, exercising his would-be authority, called a session for Tuesday, raising the possibility of rival claims to the legislature’s leadership in the days ahead. A year ago, Guaidó asserted at a street demonstration that he was Venezuela’s interim president in place of the “usurper” Maduro, whose 2018 re-election has been rejected by the U.S., the European Union and several Latin American governments.

There was no indication of weakening support among the more than 50 governments that recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. Brazil’s government called the session an “affront to democracy,” while the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in Latin America called Sunday’s events in the chamber a “farce.”

“This morning’s phony National Assembly session lacked a legal quorum. There was no vote,” Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak said on Twitter.

Guaidó said lawmakers would gather later Sunday at the headquarters of El Nacional — the country’s last major opposition newspaper — where they are expected to ratify their support for him.

Guaidó faced a major test in articulating a new vision Sunday in his year-long campaign to remove Maduro. But his re-election for a second straight year as head of congress — the source of his legitimacy in the eyes of many in the world — had been expected widely.

The weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote were marked by tension, with the opposition denouncing a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaidó.

Parra is one of a small handful of lawmakers who recently broke with Guaidó and have been expelled from their parties since for suspected involvement in a corruption scandal involving allies of Maduro.

Socialist lawmakers argued that Guaido’s absence forced them to initiate their session without him. But all day, opposition lawmakers faced resistance by security forces who set up several barricades downtown.

At one checkpoint, security forces demanded that each lawmaker present their credentials, arguing they were under orders to deny entry to several lawmakers banned from carrying out their duties by the loyalist supreme court.

“Is your family in Venezuela?” Guaidó asked the young police officers, who stood firmly in nervous silence.

“Today, you’re complicit with the dictatorship, you’re complicit with those who are responsible for the hunger inside Venezuela,” he added.

Support for Guaidó inside the opposition has taken a hit after several minority parties in November splintered off to create a separate bloc to negotiate directly with Maduro — something that Guaidó has refused, arguing that talks are simply a time-buying exercise aimed at keeping Maduro in power.

The small group of opposition lawmakers who broke with Guaidó argue that in stubbornly sticking to a naive plan of removing Maduro by force, he has put his political ambitions above the needs of Venezuelans who have largely tuned out from the political fight while enduring an economy in shambles and under stiff U.S. sanctions.

“In 2019, you represented the hopes of the nation, but today you’re its biggest deception,” said José Brito, one of the lawmakers who turned against Guaidó amid accusations they used their position to enrich themselves and to do the bidding of Maduro.

Guaidó declared presidential powers over Venezuela on Jan. 23, 2019, saying Maduro’s reelection was illegitimate because the most popular opposition parties and political leaders had been disqualified from running.

Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years. Critics blame the plunge on years of failed socialist rule and corruption, while Maduro’s allies say U.S. sanctions are taking a toll on the economy. The South American nation’s 30 million people suffer soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.

An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivaling war-torn Syria.

Maduro, who took over after the 2013 death of former President Hugo Chávez, has said Guaidó is a puppet of the U.S. Maduro also has said he’s determined to win control of the National Assembly in elections later this year.

“Despite perversions of the imperialist United States against Venezuela during 2019, we’ve managed to hold onto our independence, peace and stability,” Maduro tweeted recently.

The two men remain locked in a power struggle. However, Maduro maintains military backing and control over most branches of the government, despite the deepening crisis and hard-hitting financial sanctions from the U.S.

“Guaidó will have to not only re-energize his base and convince them to stay engaged, but keep his coalition in line as well,” said Geoff Ramsey, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “And the clock is ticking.”

Goodman reported from Miami.

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