CARACAS – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro’s government says it is close to convening a special assembly endowed with powers to rewrite the constitution, override other branches of government and punish opposition leaders.
Two of his leading foes already were dragged from their homes by heavily armed security agents and thrown in a military prison Tuesday, drawing condemnation from the United States and some Latin American countries. But many other nations and international organizations were silent or limited themselves to expressions of concern.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were accused by the government-allied Supreme Court of violating the terms of their house arrest by plotting to escape and releasing video statements criticizing Maduro.
Both men’s supporters denied the charges and vowed to continue to try to push the ruling socialist party from power. However, they gave little indication of how they planned to do that, and the capital was unusually quiet after months of sometimes violent protests.
Lopez’s supporters released a video that he taped last week saying he expected to be imprisoned again soon, and calling on Venezuelans to be firm in resisting Maduro.
“If you are looking at this video now, it’s precisely because that occurred, because they came and they illegally imprisoned me again unjustly, a prisoner of consciousness, a prisoner for my ideas, a prisoner for wanting a better Venezuela,” the 46-year-old Lopez said.
He also said that his wife, Lilian Tintori, is pregnant, touching her belly and saying he has “one more reason to fight for Venezuela.” He called the pregnancy “the best news I’ve received in the last 3 1/2 years” – the time he spent behind bars before being released to house arrest last month. The couple had been allowed some conjugal visits.
Maduro appeared undeterred in his plans to seat a special assembly this week with powers to rewrite the constitution and override any other branch of the Venezuelan government. He has threatened to use those powers to go after his opponents and the arrests Tuesday appeared to show he is willing to proceed with full force.
Maduro appeared to have the full support of the country’s most important institutions.
Venezuela’s powerful vice president, whom the U.S. has accused of drug trafficking, said the newly elected constituent assembly would be convening “within hours.”
In remarks shown on Venezuela’s state television, Tareck El Aissami said the results from Sunday’s election had been reviewed and the 545 assembly members would soon take the reins of the nation’s government. He didn’t give a specific time.
Venezuela’s defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, also appeared on television to affirm his loyalty to Maduro.
“We ask for respect for our democracy, for the way in which we have decided to take the road that we deserve to take in peace, in democracy, with tolerance, without violence and without heading toward a coup,” Padrino said.
Maduro called the vote for the constitutional assembly in May after weeks of protests fed by anger at his government over food shortages, triple-digit inflation and high crime. Many people accuse the ruling party of corruption and mismanagement.
Tensions have escalated since government-allied electoral authorities said more than 8 million people voted Sunday, a turnout figure that was disputed by the opposition and independent analysts and condemned by many nations in the region and beyond.
The Trump administration quickly moved against Maduro on Monday, adding him to a growing list of high-ranking Venezuelan officials targeted by financial sanctions. But the U.S. held off on sanctioning Venezuela’s oil industry, which could undermine Maduro’s government but also deepen the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
Maduro scoffed at the sanctions and said he had no intention of deviating from his plans to rewrite the constitution and go after a string of enemies. He has said he would use the assembly’s powers to bar opposition candidates from running in gubernatorial elections in December unless they negotiate an end to protests that have resulted in at least 120 deaths and nearly 2,000 injuries over the past four months.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that the Trump administration was “evaluating all of our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future, and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”
Later, the White House issued a statement condemning “the Maduro dictatorship” over the arrests and saying Lopez and Ledezma are political prisoners.
“The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized,” the White House said.
Panamanian and Argentine officials and the Organization of American States also condemned the arrests, though other nations in the region were silent.
The French, British, Spanish and Mexican ambassadors to Venezuela visited the opposition-controlled National Assembly to meet with legislators as a show of support Tuesday. After they left, members of pro-government motorcycle gangs surrounded the building.
Meanwhile, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has urged condemnation of the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for the arrest of two top opposition leaders.
Pence said Wednesday in Montenegro that the United States will “hold Maduro personally responsible for the health and safety” of Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma.
The two had been under house arrest but security force officers hustled them off to a military prison before dawn on Tuesday.
Pence says that “in recent days we’ve seen completion of Venezuela’s collapse into dictatorship.” He adds “the United States calls all who cherish freedom to condemn the Maduro regime for its abuse of power and its abuse of its own people.”
He says, “Venezuela deserves democracy.”