Venezuela’s Maduro, Opposition Allege Coup Ahead of Protests

  • Opposition-controlled Congress plans political trial of Maduro
  • Defense minister says armed forces will uphold rule of law

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, gestures while addressing pro-government supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Venezuela’s government and opposition dug in for a protracted fight Tuesday, with each side accusing the other of waging a coup ahead of national protests planned for Wednesday.

The country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to open a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro, approving a measure to summon him to testify next Tuesday as they investigate him for violating the constitution and possibly abandoning his post.

Congress’s decision caps a raucous two-day session, where the legislature alleged that the government’s suspension of a referendum process against the unpopular president is tantamount to a coup. Opposition and pro-government lawmakers traded insults while pro-Maduro supporters surrounded the building during a rally held in downtown Caracas.

The bid to subject Maduro to a political trial is unlikely to gain traction, though, given the ruling socialists’ control of virtually all other government institutions. While opinion polls overwhelming show that a majority of Venezuelans want the president gone, the country’s high court, stacked with government friendly justices, has stymied all of the opposition’s major initiatives and allowed Maduro to bypass congress entirely.

As the lawmakers voted Tuesday, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, in a rare televised address, accused congress of trying to promote instability and said Venezuela’s armed forces would uphold the rule of law. Congress’s “real intent is nothing less that to gravely affect the institutionality of the country through chaos and anarchy,” he said in a prepared statement.

Wednesday Protest

Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, meanwhile, urged supporters to turn out Wednesday for a nationwide protest dubbed the “Taking of Venezuela,” even after the opposition alliance on Monday announced it had agreed to Vatican-mediated talks with the government.

“We’ll send a message tomorrow, because they carried out a coup here,” Capriles said, adding that he didn’t rule out a march to the presidential palace. “If I have to meet with the devil, I don’t have a problem with that. But there have to be witnesses.”

Many of Maduro’s opponents, Capriles included, had voiced dismay over the surprise agreement to hold talks with the government, saying they had first heard of the accord on local television. On Tuesday, coalition chief Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba tried to downplay concern that the opposition had kowtowed to the government.

“We need to act with the responsibility the situation demands,” Torrealba said in a statement. “The situation is extremely delicate, and any mistake won’t just cost votes and positions. A mistake now could cost lives.”

To read about the surprise dialogue process, click here.

For his part, Maduro announced that he would personally attend the meetings, but did not yet appear ready to extend an olive branch to his opponents. Speaking at the government rally, he accused his foes in the legislature of waging a “parliamentary coup,” and convened a defense council to meet Wednesday morning.

While many here are hoping for as a potential breakthrough for Venezuela’s dueling political factions, which have been at loggerheads since congress changed hands in January, observers caution that the opposition-government dialogue could divert attention from Venezuela’s institutional crisis and fracture an already divided opposition.

“They have something to gain by dialogue, but they also have a lot to lose,” said David Smilde, a sociologist at Tulane University, who has long studied Venezuela.

“The problem is that the opposition doesn’t have enough unity and leadership to have a focused strategy and just bungled along into these things.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto, and Fabiola Zerpa

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