Venezuela opposition swears in lawmakers barred by Supreme Court

CARACAS, Venezuela - The new opposition-dominated congress on Wednesday swore in three lawmakers barred by the Supreme Court from taking their seats, setting up a confrontation with the ruling socialists in this oil-exporting nation mired in deep economic troubles.

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The three had not been seated Tuesday when the opposition took control of the National Assembly for the first time in 17 years but congressional leaders swore them in Wednesday as the body's first act of official business.

Socialist lawmakers stormed out, saying the defiance to the high court would automatically void of constitutional legitimacy any laws passed by the new legislature.

"Confrontation is coming. Confrontation is inevitable," warned Diosdado Cabello, the legislature's previous president and the country's second-most powerful socialist leader.

The high court said its order preventing the lawmakers from the remote state of Amazonas from taking their seats was to give justices time to look into allegations of electoral fraud.

The move enraged the opposition, which called it an attempt by judges loyal to President Nicholas Maduro to undermine the opposition's landslide victory in legislative elections last month. Maduro's foes won by a single seat a two-thirds majority in congress that would give it the power to censure Cabinet officials and even rewrite the constitution.

The Supreme Court has never ruled against the ruling socialist party, and opposition leaders charge that it has become an extension of the executive branch.

Maduro on Wednesday called the swearing-in of the three lawmakers a "grave" mistake and accused the opposition of trying to sow instability and provoke a "huge crisis."

His remarks came in a two-hour televised address in which he juggled his Cabinet to prepare for what he called a "counter-offensive" against an emboldened opposition that has vowed to remove Maduro by constitutional means within six months.

As part of the shuffle, he named as his new vice-president Aristobulo Isturiz, a former education minister under the late President Hugo Chavez who is currently governor of the oil state of Anzoategui. He replaces Jorge Arreaza, who married Chavez's eldest daughter and will now assume control of the government's social programs.

Two army generals kept their jobs as the powerful defence and interior ministers despite speculation they would be sacked. But a third military man was replaced as economic czar by a little-known leftist academic.

The military has traditionally been the arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela and under Chavez and Maduro its power was greatly enhanced. But discontent, especially among the military's lower's ranks is believed to be spreading, and some saw in Maduro's decision to order officials back to the barracks following the electoral defeat an attempt to curb their influence.

Most of the other top Cabinet posts were unchanged or recycled to socialist stalwarts.

Maduro did not announce any new economic initiatives that he has said are coming, just repeating a pledge that he will soon declare a national economic emergency. Venezuelans are burdened by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages, with the oil-dependent economy in the world's deepest recession.

Besides swearing-in the suspended lawmakers, opposition leaders in congress on Wednesday also angered Maduro's supporters by ordering that portraits of Chavez be removed from the National Assembly building.

A video of the new head of congress, Henry Ramos, giving the order that all Chavez portraits be taken away played in heavy rotation on state media Wednesday.

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



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