Venezuelan Opposition Lawmakers Allowed Into Congress Lawmakers entered congress on Wednesday, a day after opposition leader Juan Guaido accused Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro's government of trying to "gag" the legislature after it was blocked by security forces.
"Here we are in session, facing the people," said Guaido when opening the day's proceedings at the Federal Palace building that houses the National Assembly -- the only government branch under opposition control.
SEBIN security agents and the National Guard, which provides security for the building, had prevented lawmakers from entering on Tuesday.
It was the latest move in a series of measures taken by the Maduro regime against opposition lawmakers since Guaido's failed April 30 uprising.
Venezuela has been in political turmoil since assembly speaker Guaido declared himself acting president in January in a direct challenge to Maduro's authority.
"The (only) option in Venezuela is to struggle, to keep going ... and here is your parliament to accompany you and get out of this crisis," said Guaido in a speech transmitted on twitter.
Tuesday's session was meant to discuss government measures taken against National Assembly lawmakers, which was instead on Wednesday's program.
The Constituent Assembly, set up by Maduro to replace the sidelined National Assembly, has stripped a dozen opposition lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity.
The Supreme Court has likewise charged 14 deputies with involvement in the failed uprising, in which Guaido was joined by around 30 members of the armed forces in a revolt that quickly fizzled out. It did, however, spark two days of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces.
The US government suspended all passenger and cargo air services to Venezuela on Wednesday, citing reports of civil unrest in and around its airports.
The military has largely remained loyal to Maduro, strengthening his position in the power struggle with Guaido, who is recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries.
Of the lawmakers singled out by authorities, deputy assembly speaker Edgar Zambrano was arrested by SEBIN agents last week. Another fled to neighboring Colombia, four more sought refuge in diplomatic compounds while yet another said he was hiding inside Venezuela.
"Yesterday the dictatorship tried to prevent our session but they couldn't and they can't," Guaido wrote on twitter.
"Today we will sit in session honoring once more the support and confidence of the whole of Venezuela."
- Normal entry -
Earlier in the day, the National Assembly speaker's press team had shared a video of a smiling Guaido entering the congress building alongside other lawmakers.
"We're already here inside. Entry was as normal, they only asked deputies for their identification," lawmaker Arnoldo Benitez told AFP.
Maduro's right-hand man Diosdado Cabello justified Tuesday's intervention by claiming there was a bomb threat in the building.
Guaido accused the security forces of using "brute force" and said the building was "occupied militarily."
While deputies were allowed in on Wednesday, the National Guard prevented the press from entering, something that has happened before.
"They didn't allow in the press and that's a concern for us because the media is a shield for us here inside," Benitez said by telephone.
A line of uniformed officers carrying shields were stationed outside the entrance to the legislature.
The National Assembly has been effectively powerless since 2016 when the Supreme Court, made up of regime loyalists, declared it in contempt.
Ever since the top court has annulled every decision its made.
"Today, history obliges us to be firm with those few who try to tarnish the people's ideals," said Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno in an official act, referring to supposed attacks on the constitution by opposition lawmakers that reject Maduro's authority.
Venezuela's Maduro Tightens Pressure on Opposition
By Christopher Torchia
The arrest of a top opposition leader in Venezuela unleashed fears of a wider crackdown on Thursday, even as members of the opposition issued renewed calls for weekend protests in a monthslong campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
The Wednesday arrest of Edgar Zambrano, vice-president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in Venezuela, was the latest move in a protracted, increasingly murky struggle between two camps vying for support of the military, which has seen some defections but whose loyalty to Maduro has preserved his grip on power.
Maduro's chief adversary, opposition leader Juan Guaido, portrayed the arrest and targeting of members of the assembly as acts of desperation by a government whose leaders don't know who to trust.
The U.S.-backed opposition leader also announced new nationwide protests on Saturday, following clashes between police and protesters last week that left six people dead.
``They won't get us out of the streets,'' said Guaido, whose public appearance in Caracas reflected his belief that Maduro does not have the confidence to arrest him.
Maduro has appeared to let Guaido wage a campaign against him following U.S. warnings that there would be severe repercussions if he took action against his foe.
The United States says Russia-backed Maduro was elected illegitimately and that Guaido should lead Venezuelans to free elections after years of turmoil. Maduro describes Guaido as a collaborator in a U.S.-engineered coup plot.
Now, the government is chipping away at the National Assembly, the key Venezuelan institution demanding Maduro's resignation.
Diosdado Cabello, a leading political ally of Maduro, suggested Thursday that the government is being methodical in its battle with the opposition.
``We're not in a rush,'' Cabello said.
Venezuela's top court has announced investigations of Zambrano and nine other congress members for alleged roles in supporting Guaido's failed appeal for a military uprising on April 30, as others have come under increasing pressure.
``This is clearly fallout from the uprising last week. It amounts to a reassertion of hardliners within the Maduro government,'' said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental group.
He suggested that factionalism within the embattled government was on display, with Maikel Moreno, head of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, among those who were ``trying to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime.'' Moreno had been identified by the U.S. as a conspirator in Guaido's failed scheme.
Smilde also said hardliners within the intelligence service, whose former chief broke ranks with Maduro, are ``showing they are still on board.''
European and Latin American countries that support Venezuela's opposition condemned the arrest of Zambrano, saying his parliamentary immunity was illegally lifted.
Some 29 National Assembly members, or 25% of parliamentarians who oppose the government, have been persecuted by the pro-Maduro supreme court, according to Guaido.
Some members of the opposition-led congress have sought refuge in diplomatic missions, echoing moves made by 1970s-era dissidents scrambling for protection under the flags of other countries during the previous era of Latin American dictatorships.
Richard Blanco, an opposition congressman, on Thursday told VPItv, a local media outlet, that he had gone to the Argentine embassy. Another, Mariela Magallanes, is staying at the home of the Italian ambassador. On Thursday afternoon, legislator Americo De Grazia indicated on Twitter that Italian diplomats were also hosting him.
Opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez entered the home of the Spanish ambassador after he joined Guaido in the failed attempt to topple Maduro. Lopez was detained for anti-government protests in 2014 and had been under house arrest for two years before he was freed.
On Thursday, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a former spy chief who became a government critic, was also transferred by military police to a maximum-security cell at a Caracas military base, his political movement said. Rodriguez Torres was arrested a year ago.
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Top Venezuelan Judge Blasts US for Threats of More Sanctions By Scott Smith
The head of Venezuela's top court on Wednesday rejected a U.S. threat to apply sanctions to all its judges, accusing the Trump administration of trying to manipulate the crisis-wracked nation's justice system and foment a coup.
Maikel Moreno, president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, pushed back at comments by Vice-President Mike Pence, who said the U.S. would extend sanctions to all members of the Venezuelan high court if they continue to be a ``political tool'' of President Nicolas Maduro.
``This unlawful, despicable and intolerable action violates the norms and principles of international law that govern relations between civilized nations,'' Moreno, a political ally of the Maduro, said in a nationally broadcast TV appearance. Moreno already faces U.S. sanctions.
The oil-rich nation is locked in a political struggle between socialist President Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is backed by the United States and more than 50 other nations.
Tensions peaked last week when Guaido sought to instigate a military uprising outside a Caracas air base that sparked two days of deadly protests in clashes between backers of the opposition leader and security forces loyal to Maduro, who remains in power.
Guaido on Wednesday took to the streets of at least two coastal communities outside the capital of Caracas to keep up momentum among Venezuelans. He met supporters in his hometown of La Guaira and surrounding communities, where he was greeted by cheering neighbourhood groups, hugs and fist bumps.
More than 3 million Venezuelans have left their homeland in recent years amid skyrocketing inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Pence and other Trump administration officials blame Maduro's failed policies, warning that 2 million more are expected to flee by the end of the year if the nation's crisis continues.
The high court announced Wednesday that it has opened legal proceedings against three additional opposition lawmakers accused of supporting the military uprising, bringing the total to nine accused of ``betraying the homeland'' and ``instigating an insurrection.''
In his speech a day earlier, Pence said the U.S. would extend sanctions to all 25 members of Venezuela's Supreme Court if they continue to prop up Maduro. The U.S. already has sanctions on about 150 officials and businesses in the country.
Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza in a recent trip to Moscow said the United States has illegally appropriated at least $4 billion in Venezuelan assets in the guise of financial sanctions.
U.S. officials say they are targeting Maduro's inner circle, who have raided the nation's coffers.
Arreaza says that in one case the move stifled bank transfers to pay for 26 life-saving bone marrow transplants for Venezuelans awaiting care in Italy.
``What it has generated is suffering by the Venezuelan people,'' said Arreaza, the official most recently sanctioned on April 26. ``It's criminal what the government of the United States is doing.''
The U.S. lifted sanctions on a top Venezuelan general who broke ranks with Maduro, trying to help the opposition regain momentum in the face of a government crackdown following last week's failed uprising.
Pence said the immediate lifting of financial sanctions for Gen. Manuel Figuera, who was Venezuela's spy chief, is intended to encourage others in the military to abandon their support for Maduro.
The move was a display of ``good faith'' designed to elicit ``concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order'' by dozens of other sanctioned Venezuelan insiders, the Treasury Department said in a statement.
Figuera was the sole regime insider to defy Maduro during the uprising, although the White House contends several others, including Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, had had been in talks for weeks with the opposition to oust Maduro but backed away from the plan at the last minute.
As the U.S. looked to lure the Venezuelan military, Maduro and his allies started going after opponents who supported the uprising.
Maduro on Wednesday discharged Figuera from service along with 55 other soldiers accused of taking part in Guaido's failed uprising.
Also among them was National Guard Lt. Col. Illich Sanchez, who oversaw protection to the opposition-controlled National Assembly accompanied Guaido to the outskirts of the air base where some rebel soldiers clashed with security forces loyal to Maduro.
Maduro has fallen under increasing international pressure after being elected last year to a second six-year term that critics say was rigged. Russia, China and Cuba, among other countries, support Maduro.
Maduro says he is the target of a U.S.-engineered coup plot and has denounced the Guaido-led congress, instead recognizing a rival assembly packed with government loyalists set up in 2017.
In early April, the government-backed National Constituent Assembly voted to strip Guaido of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Maduro, however, has not moved to detain Guaido, possibly reflecting wariness over a likely backlash from the United States and its allies.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.
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European Led Group Seeks to Help end Venezuelan Crisis
A mostly European group of nations said Tuesday it will send a high-level delegation to Venezuela to propose solutions to that country's protracted crisis.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Costa Rica that the delegation will travel in the coming days. The International Contact Group, consisting of eight European countries, the European Union and four Latin American countries, concluded its meeting in San Jose on Tuesday.
The group formed after Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress declared himself early this year interim president in a direct challenge to Nicolas Maduro's rule.
It reiterated its goal of a peaceful resolution through the holding of free and fair elections as soon as possible. It also expressed concern for Venezuela's humanitarian situation and called for unrestricted access for aid.
Bolivia did not sign the group's declaration, but participated in discussions.
The group called on the Venezuelan government to respect the right to peaceful protest and to dissolve armed civilian groups. The declaration tried to give Guaido some cover as well.
``The National Assembly, democratically elected and presided over by Juan Guaido, must continue being the centre of the country's political life,'' the declaration said. ``Its constitutional rights must be respected in line with national legislation, the parliamentary immunity of its members must be guaranteed.''
On Tuesday, Venezuela's top court opened a criminal investigation against six opposition lawmakers following the failed attempt last week to trigger a military uprising.
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US, Russia Butt Heads Over Venezuela By Jim Mannion
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Sunday for Russia to get out of Venezuela, while his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called on Washington to "abandon its irresponsible plans" in the crisis-wracked country.
The push and shove set the stage for a Pompeo meeting with Lavrov in Finland this week, and belied the conciliatory tone taken by US President Donald Trump on Friday after what he said was "a very good conversation" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The top level contacts follow the failure of a US-backed uprising on Tuesday aimed at ousting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, which Pompeo has blamed on Russia.
Diosdado Cabello, the head of the Constituent Assembly, said the powerful pro-Maduro body would strip legislative immunity from opposition lawmakers who backed the uprising.
Pompeo has said Maduro had been ready to flee to Havana but the Russians, who had flown military advisers to Caracas to shore up his socialist government, talked him out of it.
"The Russians must get out," Pompeo told ABC television's "This Week."
"I'm going to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov in recent days. It's very clear, we want the Russians out, we want the Iranians out, we want the Cubans out. It's very clear."
Trump undercut Pompeo's position on Friday, telling reporters that Putin had assured him "he is not looking to get involved in Venezuela other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela."
"And I feel the same way," Trump added.
Asked about those comments, Pompeo said: "I didn't see the full context of those quotes."
In Moscow, Lavrov met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and pushed back against Washington.
"We call on the Americans, and all those supporting them, to abandon their irresponsible plans and to act exclusively within the boundaries of international law," Lavrov said.
- 'Bumpy roads' -
Washington has given full-throated backing to opposition leader Juan Guaido, who tried but ultimately failed to ignite the anti-Maduro military uprising.
Guaido, who is recognized by more than 50 countries including the US as Venezuela's legitimate interim president, acknowledged that he fell short.
"Maybe because we still need more soldiers, and maybe we need more officials of the regime to be willing to support it, to back the constitution," Guaido told The Washington Post. "I think the variables are obvious at this point."
He has tried to keep up the pressure with street protests, but his latest call for demonstrations Saturday drew only several hundred people.
The attempted uprising set off two days of violent clashes between security forces and protesters that left four dead, dozens injured and more 150 people arrested.
Opposition lawmakers who backed the effort now face retribution.
"The prosecutor's office opened its file, all the requests to lift parliamentary immunity are coming to the Constituent Assembly, as it should be, and... we will certainly raise our hands to remove parliamentary immunity from all those who actively participated in that act," Cabello said.
- Eyes peeled -
Pompeo admitted to "bumpy roads" and said it could take "two weeks, four weeks" to remove Maduro.
"But Maduro can't feel good. He's ruling for the moment but he can't govern," he said. "This is someone who cannot be part of Venezuela's future."
Maduro, meanwhile, appeared at a military exercise on Saturday with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, who top US officials had said was in on the attempted uprising but backed out.
"I told the generals and admirals yesterday: loyalty, I want an active loyalty," Maduro said in a speech to some 5,000 troops that was broadcast nationally on radio and television.
"I trust you, but keep your eyes open, a handful of traitors cannot tarnish the honor, the unity, the cohesion and the image of the armed forces," he said.
He also called on the troops to be "ready" for potential US military action.
Pompeo said a "full range of options" are being prepared for Trump. So far, US efforts have focused on diplomatic and economic pressure on Caracas.
At Venezuelan Protest, Opposition's Frustration Shows
By Christopher Torchia
When a protester handed over a written appeal for the military's support on Saturday, a Venezuelan policeman burned the document and let the ashes fall to the ground.
The armed forces ``won't be blackmailed or bought,'' said a second officer standing nearby.
Benito Rodriguez fumed as he watched the events unfold.
``It's a humiliation,'' said Rodriguez, a demonstrator who had joined a crowd of about 150 protesters gathered near La Casona, a residence historically used by Venezuelan presidents.
The scene highlights the uphill battle now facing opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who have failed to persuade the country's security forces to join efforts to oust the leader.
The critical role of the Venezuelan military in the country's crisis was on display Saturday as Maduro tried to portray strength by ensuring that a group of powerful generals maintained their loyalty, while opposition leader Juan Guaido attempted to woo the armed forces to his side by urging supporters to the streets.
National television showed Maduro wearing a camouflage hat as he shook hands and exchanged fist bumps with security forces during a visit to a military base before watching troops engage in a shooting exercise.
``Loyal forever,'' Maduro bellowed to a crowd of cadets in green uniforms.
Guaido, meanwhile, told backers to go to military garrisons to persuade forces to turn against Maduro, whose years in office have been marked by escalating hardship for most people in a country that was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America.
``The aim is to deliver our message without falling into confrontation or provocation,'' Guaido tweeted.
As demonstrators linked arms and moved toward police, protest leader Maria Suarez urged calm.
``Please, a lot of discipline,'' she said.
Others broke the line and went forward to hand over printed documents, saying the military's role in helping Venezuela emerge from an ``unsustainable'' situation is vital. Their appeals were printed on presidential letterhead, reflecting Guaido's claim to be the country's rightful leader.
``They think it's a joke. They don't take us seriously. They're not listening,'' said demonstrator Andrea Palma after police burned the paper with a lighter.
Divisions among the protesters were evident as some young men from poor neighbourhoods scoffed at a speaker who insisted that the gathering must be peaceful.
``It's the frustration talking,'' said demonstrator Mariajose Molina.
The latest displays of will come as the political standoff between Maduro and U.S.-backed Guaido sinks deeper into a stalemate.
On Tuesday, Guaido appeared outside a Caracas military base with a small group of security forces and urged the military to overthrow his political rival.
As the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly waited, however, it became clear that his call had failed to rally armed forces to his side. Clashes between protesters and police then erupted, leaving five dead.
Maduro's government has also shown signs of weakness and has not moved to arrest Guaido, who the United States and over 50 other nations recognize as Venezuela's rightful leader.
More than three million Venezuelans have left the country to escape a shrinking economy, hyperinflation and shortages of necessities such as medicine.
The opposition blames the sharp decline on state corruption, mismanagement and authoritarianism and says Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate. Maduro portrays Venezuela as a victim of U.S. antagonism toward the socialist principles championed by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
On Saturday, one protester looked on as the printed proclamation was burned. He then wished the policeman a nice day.
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