CARACAS: A new Venezuelan parliament was sworn in Tuesday with President Nicolas Maduro’s party in firm control and opposition leader Juan Guaido officially without a job, but with foreign backing to keep up a parallel legislature.
The new assembly was denounced as “a fraudulently elected body” by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said in a statement Washington recognized Guaido as “the legitimate president of Venezuela.”
“We consider this group to be illegitimate and will not recognize it nor its pronouncements,” he said of the new parliament which was also rejected by Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay.
Members of the Lima Group, consisting of more than a dozen Latin American nations and Canada, said they did “not recognize the result of an election” that violates the National Assembly’s “constitutional right to meet without intimidation or interference” to elect its president and governing board.
A total 256 of the National Assembly’s 277 seats are in the hands of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and its allies after December 6 elections boycotted by the opposition, who claimed fraud.
The chamber, which has a five-year mandate, previously had an opposition majority with Guaido as its speaker since 2019.
Guaido, now officially out of a job, has plans to maintain a parallel parliament of shadow opposition lawmakers.
He is considered Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by around 50 foreign governments, while Maduro is subject to Western sanctions and labeled a dictator over alleged voter fraud and other abuses.
Crucially, Maduro has retained the support of Venezuela’s powerful military and every branch of government able to exercise actual power.
Only parliament was beyond his grasp — until now.
But even while the opposition controlled the National Assembly for five years, they had no actual power as the regime-dominated Supreme Court annulled their every decision.
Police and soldiers blocked off streets around the parliamentary building in central Caracas Tuesday, with only a small group of Maduro backers gathered amid a week-long confinement declared by the president, citing the coronavirus outbreak.
Lawmakers sporting masks and bearing portraits of revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar and late socialist president Hugo Chavez — Maduro’s predecessor — lay flowers on a public square before heading to the National Assembly to be sworn in.
The new speaker Jorge Rodriguez quipped with MPs that the chamber required an “exorcism” after the previous five years, and said holy water had been sprinkled “in every corner” of the house.
Maduro and members of his party had campaigned with promises of punishing “traitors,” referring to Guaido and other outgoing opposition lawmakers who voted in December to continue functioning alongside the newly-elected parliament.
Analysts have said the Guaido group’s move has no foundation in law.
Some have criticized the opposition leader’s decision to boycott last year’s elections, essentially giving up institutional power, limited as it was, and potentially placing governments that support his claim to the presidency in a difficult position.
“My first message is to Maduro and it is that we’re here, on our feet,” Guaido in a video posted on social media as he presided over a rebel parliamentary session from an unknown location.
He described the official swearing-in ceremony as “a show taking place in a Federal Legislative Palace hijacked by a dictator that no one recognizes.”
On January 23, 2019, Guaido proclaimed himself interim president before a large crowd after the then-opposition controlled parliament branded Maduro an “usurper” fraudulently reelected in May 2018.
This bold step unleashed fresh protests against Maduro, and Guaido’s popularity soared to around 80 percent, according to polling firms such as Datanalisis.
But the president refused to cede, and the standoff continues to this day.
Tuesday’s inauguration of the new parliament coincides with the dying days of the US presidency of Donald Trump, Guaido’s main ally.
Maduro has made several calls for dialogue to President-elect Joe Biden.
Pompeo said Tuesday that Guaido and the ousted parliament were “the only democratic representatives of the Venezuelan people as recognized by the international community, and they should be freed from Maduro’s harassment, threats, persecution, and other abuses.”
For his part, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo tweeted: “We will continue working with the current (opposition-led) legislature and with Juan Guaido as President in charge.”