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Venezuela opposition leader takes new oath amidst standoff

Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

ANDREA HERNANDEZ BRICEÑO/AP

By FABIOLA SANCHEZ AND CHRISTINE ARMARIO | Associated Press | Published: January 7, 2020

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó pushed through rows of national guardsmen blocking congress Tuesday to retake his seat and pledge in a darkened building with no power to press forward in his bid to topple the country's socialist president.

The man recognized by the U.S. and over 50 other nations as Venezuela's rightful president burst through the National Assembly's wooden doors along with several dozen opposition lawmakers after navigating their way past state security officers wearing helmets and carrying shields.

"We want to regain Venezuela, damn it!" Guaidó said as he pressed through the crowd of guards, lawmakers and journalists.

Once inside, he led opposition lawmakers in boisterously signing the country's anthem. Shortly thereafter, electricity in the building went out, but legislators continued in the dimly lit assembly, shouting into microphones that did not work to declare Guaidó the president of the only opposition-controlled institution.

"This is a show of what can happen when we are united," Guaidó yelled.

The dramatic events follow several days of upheaval after government-backed lawmakers announced they were taking control of the National Assembly in what the opposition has decried as an attempted coup of Venezuela's last democratic institution. The legislature is the opposition's lone national platform and remains a thorn in President Nicolás Maduro's quest to consolidate power.

The fight for control of the legislature comes as the opposition is struggling to regain its steam, nearly a year after Guaidó declared himself interim president as scores of Venezuelans took to the street in protest. Internal feuds, corruption scandals, and a failed try at dialogue with Maduro's government have left opposition lawmakers scrambling to find a unified path forward.

The latest brouhaha over the legislature could equip the opposition with new momentum, analysts said, but also gives Maduro an opportunity to make his apparent power-grab look more like another baffling political melee.

"They do these things in part because they benefit from confusion," said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said of Maduro's government.

Guaidó has served as leader of the National Assembly for the last year. he has used the title to argue that under the constitution, he is Venezuela's interim president, on grounds that Maduro's 2018 re-election was not legitimate. He was expected to be re-elected the legislature's president Sunday, but was blocked along with numerous other lawmakers from entering the ornate legislative building.

Instead, Luis Parra, a one-time opposition ally mired in accusations of bribe-taking, claimed he'd won and was the new legislature's president. He contends he obtained 81 votes of the 150 lawmakers present, an accusation Guaidó's faction denies. Guaidó held a separate session at a Venezuelan newspaper Sunday in which he states that 100 lawmakers voted to renew his term as the leader of congress.

On Tuesday, Parra took a seat, purportedly as the legislature's president, and attempted to begin a session to discuss woes including Venezuela's gas shortages but fled with his allies as Guaidó made his way into the building.

Once inside, the legislature's electricity went off in what the opposition lambasted as an attempt to sabotage their session. Instead, Guaidó and others turned on their cell phone flashlights and proceeded to swear him into office.

Holding his right hand up, the 36-year-old lawmaker loudly pledged "in the name of Venezuela" to continue fulfilling his responsibilities as self-declared interim president "and search for a solution to the crisis."

"I swear it!" he shouted before exiting the building.

The lawmakers were allowed to leave largely peacefully, though one canister of tear gas was fired as they left the legislative grounds.

Though the opposition hailed Tuesday's events as a victory, they face a decidedly uphill battle in the months ahead. Congressional elections are due this year, which will force lawmakers to decide whether to participate in a vote while Maduro is still in office. That could further fracture the opposition at a time when many Venezuelans are reluctant to take to the streets in protest. An estimated 4.5 million have fled and those who remain are struggling to meet basic needs.

For his part, Parra seems to be indicating that he'll put up a fight and continue claiming that he is the president of congress, despite Guaidó's new oath. He posted photos later Tuesday on Twitter showing himself at work in a room with a painting of South America independence hero Simón Bolívar, writing on social media that, "The National Assembly will not be silenced."

Aníbal Sánchez, an electoral expert, noted that either side would have needed a majority of the assembly's 167 members present to hold a session. Parra has yet to provide a full tally of which lawmakers were present during Sunday's purported vote. Likewise, the opposition did not immediately provide detailed information on how many lawmakers were present on Tuesday.

Sánchez said that Guaidó does appear to have risen in popularity since Sunday's events.

"Guaidó now has an opportunity to unite all of the opposition," he said.

Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years, which critics blame on failed socialist rule. The South American nation's 30 million live with soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.

"I think it's been unifying, but it's not as developed as a unity as they need," Smilde said of the opposition's legislative takeover Tuesday. "The problem is still the elephant in the room: They have to figure out what their strategy is."

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Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.
 

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