Venezuela Congress Hands Opposition Majority After Scuffles

  • Police, national guard initially blocked entrance to congress
  • Government pushes last-minute regulations of central bank, FX

Venezuelan opposition supporters rally in front of the the National Assembly in Caracas, on Jan. 5, in support of their newly elected deputies the day of their installation. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro ordered the security forces to ensure the swearing-in of a new opposition-dominated legislature passes off peacefully Tuesday, after calls for rallies raised fears of unrest.

Photographer: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

The first day of congress in a Latin American country typically would be pretty uneventful. Not in Venezuela.

Police officers line up in front of the the National Assembly in Caracas.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

The majority in the National Assembly passed to opposition lawmakers for the first time in 16 years after newly elected deputies were sworn in Tuesday. Police officers and national guardsman scuffled with some legislators and initially barred them from entering the building in Caracas, before relenting and allowing the ceremony to proceed.

Once inside, pro-government and opposition legislators traded barbs, with socialist Hector Rodriguez calling the newly elected National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup a traitor. Allup’s predecessor, Diosdado Cabello, a staunch supporter of the government, stormed out of the building during the ceremony.

"They have their majority now," Cabello told reporters after he left the Assembly building. "They can try to do what they like, but we’re going to defend the revolution."

The opposition’s first matter of business will be to present an amnesty law to free political prisoners and work to pull Venezuela out of recession, said Deputy Julio Borges, a critic of the government.

Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, attended the swearing-in ceremony and held up a sign that said “Amnesty Now!” In comments broadcast on CNN en Espanol, she urged the new congress to work with all Venezuelans and attempt to end hostilities.

Henry Ramos Allup is greeted by other opposition lawmakers.

Photographer: Juan Barretto/AFP/Getty Images

Bonds Fall

Venezuela’s dollar bonds had fallen amid concern that Tuesday’s events could turn violent and the government would limit the Assembly’s power to regulate the central bank. The yield on the benchmark note due in 2027 rose 71 basis points on Tuesday at 3:22 p.m. in New York to 25.61 percent.

President Nicolas Maduro said late Monday he had instructed authorities to guarantee the safety of all lawmakers, including those critical of his administration.

Opposition leaders have pledged to start the year probing allegations of government corruption. They also want to give Maduro six months to take measures to slow inflation, narrow the budget deficit and restore growth, or face removal from office.

A deputy holds a sign that reads "We are 112," in reference to the number of opposition lawmakers who won seats.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

“Maduro should be thinking about the possibility of resigning,” Ramos Allup said on Monday. He said Tuesday that the Assembly would work to have Maduro removed from office within six months.

The outgoing congressional leadership who supported Maduro’s government had tried to undermine the incoming legislature. It appointed more than a dozen justices to the Supreme Court, which subsequently stripped the opposition of a two-thirds supermajority by barring three of its newly elected lawmakers from taking office.

Deputy Borges said the opposition would seek to have the lawmakers barred by the Supreme Court sworn in as early as Tuesday.

“We’re going to recover all the institutions,” opposition lawmaker Americo De Grazia said at the ceremony. “It’s a shame that we have to come here and talk about the fact that diplomatic passports were given out for drug trafficking.”

New Regulations

Maduro has said talk of his ouster threatens Venezuela’s sovereignty, adding that he would defend his mandate via constitutional means. His government on Tuesday published new laws that tighten restrictions on the black market for currency, making it a crime to publish “false” rates not authorized by the government. A day earlier, it published a decree that takes away many of the powers the National Assembly had to oversee the central bank.

Maduro blames the opposition for the country’s recession, and cautioned just days after last month’s congressional elections that his rivals were pushing Venezuela to the brink of a dangerous power struggle.

“Political dynamics are set to worsen in the coming months,” analysts at consulting firm Eurasia Group wrote in a report Monday. “The government is trying to limit the opposition’s ability to influence policy after the elections.”

The U.S. congratulated Venezuela on the installation of the new congress and renewed calls for the release of political prisoners.

“We remain concerned by the controversy surrounding the seating of some elected representatives and call for a resolution of this dispute in manner that is transparent and reflects the preferences of the Venezuelan voters,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. “We again call for the release of all those imprisoned for their political beliefs and activities.”

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