Caracas, Venezuela (PanAm) – For the first time in 15 years, the Venezuelan opposition has assumed control of Congress. On January 5, the successful anti-Chavista coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) swore in 109 congressmen of the 167 seats available in the country’s single-chamber National Assembly.
The remaining seats are held by members of President Nicolás Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), but four are still pending a decision by the Supreme Court, following a last-minute move to bar the opposition from obtaining the absolute majority (112 seats).
The new Congress will hold sessions for the next five years until 2021 and is posed to become President Nicolás Maduro’s major challenger in a year with mounting economic and social crisis.
The minority Chavista faction quickly faced the reality of the crushing electoral defeat on December 6. No longer were the congressmen able to commemorate the 34th monthly announcement of the death of their leader, Hugo Chávez, as they had done since March 2013 during sessions.
A Check on Maduro
Congressional rules mandate that the oldest assembly member lead the inaugural session. So, PSUV Congressman Héctor Agüero began the proceedings and ordered a commission of delegates to inspect that every elected member was indeed present.
After a short recess, PSUV Congressman Pedro Carreño indicated that only 163 of the 167 elected officials could be sworn in, since the Supreme Court’s Electoral Chamber allowed an appeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality regarding the four seats allocated to the state of Amazonas.
Then the opposition majority voted veteran congressman and leader of the Democratic Action party Henry Ramos Allup for speaker. He had to swear himself in after Agüero refused to fulfill that duty. The first and second vice presidencies of Congress also went to opposition members Enrique Márquez and Simón Calzadilla, respectively.
In his first speech as head of Congress, Ramos Allup announced that the opposition caucus will search for constitutional mechanisms to “achieve the termination of this administration” by changing the board of directors of public institutions, retaking control of the Supreme Court of Justice, and investigating ministers.
“We are going to review the Supreme Court of Justice’s functions. It cannot continue to operate freely as it is, made up illegally. We won’t let the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber boast that it is a parallel legislative branch,” he said.
Opposition Congressman Omar Barboza of Zulia, when nominating the opposition leadership, said they are “committed to political change and national reconciliation.”
“We are not only talking about changes of names and faces,” he said, “but rather the change of a model that governs Venezuela today. The vast majority of Venezuelans gave us the responsibility to change a system that represents scarce goods, high costs of living, personal insecurity, and corruption. We are here with the commitment of promoting a different model that doesn’t give people a reason to leave the country, but rather a model for those who left to return and reconstruct the institutions.”
Congressmen Pedro Carreño and Héctor Rodríguez took on the role of defending the current administration.
The first impasse occurred moments after the opposition caucus leader Julio Borges announced that the majority would introduce, as a first order of business, a bill of Amnesty and National Reconciliation to release political prisoners. The opposition announced that it also intends to present a bill giving property titles to beneficiaries of housing programs, a bill to provide food and medicine vouchers to social security pensioners, and a bill to promote national industry.
Tensions arose as legislators began struggling physically with each other. The Chavista faction then abandoned the chamber even before Ramos Allup had finished his speech. Outside the building, however, former National Assembly president and PSUV strongman Diosdado Cabello lashed out against the opposition’s new bills.
“Nowhere in the world do you see assassins passing laws to pardon themselves,” he said in reference to Leopoldo López, the opposition leader sentenced to 14 years in jail after a dubioustrial for calling a protest in 2014 in which 43 people died.
Venezuela’s first lady and elected Congresswoman Cilia Flores quickly exited the premises, dodging journalists’ questions about the arrest and trial of her nephews in New York on drug-trafficking charges.
Among the attendees at the swearing-in ceremony was Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo López, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, Miranda state governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, and foreign diplomats.
Free Press Readmitted to Congress
Another landmark of the new Congress was the return of independent media outlets. After being barred from entry for six years, they resumed coverage of legislative sessions.
The former Chavista majority only allowed Congress’s official television channel and the state media network to broadcast live from sessions. Prior to the inauguration, however, the government dismantled the congressional channel. On Monday, employees from the former network gathered outside the building to protest and denounce that Chavista officials had summarily fired them.
Government and opposition supporters gathered around the Federal Legislative Palace during the swearing-in ceremony, but police squads and military personnel prevented direct confrontation. Initially, they allowed the crowds to get very close to the building, but then decided to push them back. There were no incidents except for slight injuries to photographers covering the event and some damage to a nearby McDonald’s restaurant.