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Venezuela to install socialist-held congress as Maduro consolidates power

The new legislature starting Tuesday amounts to the symbolic end of the opposition's five-year struggle to weaken Maduro.
Image: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a news conference in Caracas
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a news conference in Caracas on Dec. 8, 2020.Manaure Quintero / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's ruling socialist party on Tuesday will install a congress controlled by allies of President Nicolás Maduro, a change in control that many Western nations have assailed as the product of a fraudulent election.

The country's opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, who has served as speaker of parliament since 2019, will seat a committee of legislators intended to rival the socialist-held National Assembly after the opposition boycotted legislative elections held on Dec. 6.

But the shift in legislative power is a further consolidation of power for Maduro, who in early 2019 looked vulnerable as the United States and dozens of other countries recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader, arguing Maduro was a corrupt dictator who has overseen an economic collapse.

It also amounts to the symbolic end of the opposition's five-year struggle to weaken Maduro after winning a 2015 landslide victory in parliamentary elections, even if the change will mean little in concrete terms either for Maduro or his adversaries.

Control of the parliament will give the ruling socialists little capacity to improve a crippled economy hemmed in by sanctions. And Maduro's allies in the country's Supreme Court had already for years neutered the opposition legislature by shooting down every one of its measures.

The Trump administration has recognized the opposition-held congress' one-year extension of its own term, but other international supporters of Guaidó, including the European Union, have yet to agree the opposition still rightfully controls parliament.

The move has also generated rifts within Guaidó's coalition, with one major opposition party abstaining from the vote on the extension and several individual lawmakers announcing they would stop serving as legislators after Jan. 5.

The looming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, after years of escalating U.S. sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Maduro under Trump, represents another uncertainty for Guaidó.

Biden has repeatedly labeled Maduro a dictator and has said he would work with other countries to seek free and fair elections in Venezuela but has not laid out details of policies he plans to implement toward the oil-rich nation.

A representative of Biden's team did not immediately reply on Monday when asked if his administration would continue recognizing Guaidó as the head of parliament.

"An important part of the opposition has adopted the extremist vision that was imposed from Washington during the Trump era," Maduro said in a television interview on Jan. 1. "The Trump era is ending. We will see how that part of the opposition reacts."

Maduro calls Guaidó a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup to control Venezuela's considerable oil reserves. He has said the Dec. 6 elections had the same electoral conditions as the 2015 vote won by the opposition.

Maduro, who retains the support of the armed forces and allies like Cuba, Russia and Iran, has since barred opposition lawmakers from meeting in congressional headquarters, and pushed dozens of legislators into exile.

But Guaidó has vowed to press on. He promised a "diplomatic offensive" to ensure as many countries as possible refused to recognize the legitimacy of the socialist-held congress, and called on supporters to take to the streets.

"The national parliament will not be stopped until we have seen free elections take place in Venezuela," he said in a video message posted to Twitter on Sunday.

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