CARACAS, Venezuela – Foreign ministers from 14 nations are meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis, while President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.
The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew condemnation from many of the same regional governments that are sending representatives to the meeting in Peru’s capital.
Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.
Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the constitutional assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.
The new constitutional assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.
“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, vowed to remain in their posts in their only government foothold – the country’s single-chamber congress, the National Assembly.
John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro’s administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.
The opposition-dominated National Assembly “will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,” Magdaleno said.
National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers Monday that they should keep an active presence in the legislative palace despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the “symbol of popular sovereignty.”
“We are a testament to the fight for democracy,” he said. “It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.”
In theory, both the National Assembly and the constitutional assembly could operate simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election has the authority to trump any other branch of government – and Venezuela’s leaders have promised to do just that.
National Assembly members voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super body’s decrees.
“The intent is to pursue those who think differently,” lawmaker Delsa Solorzano said of the constitutional assembly’s plans.
Cabello said that the new assembly’s decisions have all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chavez and that the new assembly would be in power for “at least two years.”
“This is a completely legal process,” he said.
The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether they will take part in regional elections scheduled for December. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week. Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on taking part in the contests for governors.
While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.
On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks’ weapons supply. Ten escaped, but two were killed and the remaining eight were captured after battling with soldiers for three hours, Maduro said.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said special units were being activated Monday to assist in the search for the escapees, who remained at large more than 24 hours after the attack.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said it has unearthed “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators and detainees in Venezuela.
Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani says preliminary findings suggest there are “no signs” that the situation was improving. The rights office team said Tuesday that violations included “house raids, torture and ill-treatment of those detained in connection with the protests.”
A full report on the team’s findings is expected later this month.
Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva, contributed to this report.