AP Explains: Fight for Venezuela’s National Assembly deepens

CARACAS, Venezuela —
With two men claiming the presidency for nearly a year, Venezuela‘s political landscape has been messy for a while now. But it is set to become flat out chaotic, with confusion over who is in charge of the National Assembly and plans for the opposition-controlled assembly to meet Wednesday in a building just across from where a rival pro-government legislature – the National Constituent Assembly – will be meeting.

U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó appears to have retained control of the National Assembly after being blocked in a physical tussle from entering the legislative building in an apparent attempt to wrest control of it away from him. It’s the only branch of Venezuela‘s government still out of reach by Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government.

The Associated Press explains the struggle for control of the National Assembly:

WHY IS THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY IMPORTANT?

The opposition in 2015 overwhelmingly won control of the National Assembly in a many sign voters were rejecting Maduro’s socialist policies first launched by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Ever since, critics of Maduro say the government has tried to undermine the legislature. In 2017, Maduro stripped the assembly of its power and created the National Constituent Assembly to carry out its functions.

While the National Assembly was left with little concrete power, it has symbolic significance as the remaining opposition stronghold. Maduro already controls Venezuela’s other major branches of government, including the supreme court, national elections commission and attorney general’s office. He also holds sway over the military, which assures his hold on power despite deep unpopularity among citizens amid a historic crisis in the once-wealthy oil nation.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez, a geopolitical risk analyst who teaches at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said Maduro has used the courts and National Constituent Assembly to legislate at will. The attempt to grab the National Assembly shows Russia’s rising influence in Venezuela, Lansberg-Rodríguez said.

“For rubber-stamping international gas contracts, and having them be enforceable afterwards, the actual National Assembly is much better,” he said.

WHAT’S THE LATEST CONFUSION OVER?

On Jan. 5, Guaidó and fellow opposition lawmakers were forcefully blocked by riot police loyal to Maduro from entering the legislature’s halls in downtown Caracas. Guaidó even tried to scale a fence, only to be pushed back by police.

This first session of the year was key for Guaidó, who was expected to be named for a second term as the the assembly’s head. It’s the position he used to claim presidential powers under the constitution, saying Maduro’s rule was legitimate and to blame for the crisis.

While Guaidó was locked out, lawmaker Luis Parra, who had broken with Guaidó, was sworn in as head of the National Assembly. Opposition leaders saw it as proof he had been paid off by Maduro.

Guaidó and the opposition lawmakers later held the vote at a newspaper’s office naming Guaidó as its leader, and they later returned to their own building to hold session as Parra left.

While Guaidó´s popularity is waning, he is considered by analysts the best shot at forcing out Maduro. Guaidó has backing from more than 50 nations and has forged consensus among an often frayed opposition movement.

THERE’S ALSO A NATIONAL CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY?

So there are two rivals claiming control of the National Assembly, and a second legislature that critics say is Maduro’s way of passing laws the opposition-run National Assembly would have blocked. They call the National Constituent Assembly a rubber-stamp legislature for the government.

On Tuesday, Maduro delivered the annual presidential review before the National Constituent Assembly, claiming victory in the face of a U.S.-led economic war on Venezuela. In the speech, he called Guaidó a “ventriloquist doll” of Washington.

WHY IS THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY DRAWING ATTENTION NOW?

It’s an election year for the National Assembly, and the government openly wants to regain control of it. Guaidó says he’s going boycott the election because there’s no chance of it being fair under the an election council run by a Maduro loyalist.

Maduro predicted a victory in the legislative election, saying in his annual address that he would welcome international observes from European Union, the United Nations and other countries.

“Many of you look like deputies,” Maduro said, looking out over the National Constituent Assembly members. “Within a year the new National Assembly with the new majority we will have should good news.”

HOW DID THE LATEST SCUFFLE PLAY OUT POLITICALLY?

Guaidó’s popularity gained a boost with the recent legislative scuffle, according to Lansberg-Rodríguez. Images of him trying to leap the fence in the face of resistance from heavily armed security forces were widely published and broadcast.

Guaidó now has a stronger grasp of who is with him and more goodwill from folks who didn’t think he was being dynamic and decisive enough, Lansberg-Rodríguez said. He added it was a bonus that the U.S. on Monday hit Parra and six other lawmakers with sanctions for trying to derail Guaidó.

“It’s allowed Guaidó to remind the world he’s still there and that he can still eke out the occasional victory,” Lansberg-Rodríguez said of the failed attempt to block Guaido from the National Assembly. “The unfortunate thing is that the assembly building is still ultimately part of a city, which is part of a country, still physically controlled by Maduro and his thugs.”

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Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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