Showdown looms as Venezuela's opposition takes control of congress

CARACAS, Venezuela - Forget the ceremonial gavel passing and group photos. Venezuela's new congress, now dominated by opponents of the socialist administration, is being sworn in Tuesday amid duelling street demonstrations, mutual accusations of subverting democracy and a looming potential for violence.

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With the seating of the newly elected National Assembly, it will be the first time in 17 years that opponents of the socialist revolution begun by the late President Hugo Chavez will control any institution in the South American country.

Incoming opposition lawmakers are promising to use their new muscle to make sweeping changes, while the socialist party of current President Nicolas Maduro has been equally adamant that the legislature will not be allowed to roll back Chavez's revolution.

The Supreme Court last week barred three opposition lawmakers from taking their seats, responding to a challenge by supporters of the socialists who accuse the opposition of stealing the Dec. 6 legislative election. That ruling could snatch away the opposition's two-thirds majority, which it will need to make any major move, such as firing top officials or rewriting the constitution.

On Monday, the incoming congress president, Henry Ramos, reiterated his promise to swear in all lawmakers and said Maduro should consider resigning to save Venezuela from a political crisis, echoing a call hard-liners made in 2014 when they launched a street protest movement that resulted in dozens of deaths.

"The people put their trust in us, and we can't just go home and knit booties to avoid conflict," the 72-year-old Ramos told reporters. "We must wield our power."

Such acerbic statements are a trademark of Ramos, a wily, pre-Chavez era politician whose promotion to the top spot in congress over a fresher face has exposed internal rifts that will dog the opposition.

The coalition's more moderate wing has lambasted the hard-liners' strategy of trying to force Maduro from office and wants to take pragmatic steps to wrench the oil-dependent economy out of a tailspin marked by triple-digit inflation and the world's deepest recession.

The factions have agreed on a basic agenda that includes granting amnesty to dozens of jailed leaders that human rights groups consider political prisoners, pushing for the release of central bank data and giving Maduro a six-month deadline to fall in line with the opposition's economic program.

Incoming lawmakers are also promising to use the National Assembly as a tool for accountability, holding investigative hearings and commissioning audits of government agencies.

Jennifer McCoy, a longtime observer of elections in Venezuela for the pro-democracy group founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, said the coming weeks will tell whether the government and opposition can put aside their mutual bloodthirst.

"This is the moment when both sides need to determine how to move forward: whether they are going to work together or engage in a battle royal," said McCoy, who is now director of the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University

The socialists began fighting the new congress almost as soon as it was voted in. Outgoing lawmakers appointed new Supreme Court judges and changed the ownership of the National Assembly's TV station. Maduro on Monday issued decrees limiting congress' power over the central bank.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said Monday that it was concerned by the Maduro government's attempts to interfere with the new congress, drawing a sharp rebuke from Venezuela's president.

The opposition planned a march to the National Assembly building Tuesday morning. The downtown district in the shadow of the presidential palace rarely sees opposition rallies and is newly covered with pro-government graffiti.

Maduro was conciliatory in a national television address Monday, saying he had instructed the military to guarantee the opposition access to the neoclassical National Assembly building downtown so it can be seated peacefully.

But pro-government militias, dubbed by Chavez as "the armed wing of the revolution," called on their supporters to stage a counter protest, raising the threat of clashes.

"The revolution must be defended in the streets," read one pro-government call circulated Monday. "A bourgeoisie congress will never do anything but legislate the slavery of the people."

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota contributed to this report.



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