Venezuela political tensions simmer amid moves against opposition



Political tensions in crisis-wracked Venezuela simmered Wednesday as the opposition-controlled legislature was to convene, after a rival assembly loyal to President Nicolas Maduro created a "truth commission" seen as targeting lawmakers.

The establishment of the commission -- which Maduro wants to examine alleged crimes committed by opposition leaders -- was the latest in a series of moves by the new Constituent Assembly and the supreme court to crack down on challenges to Maduro's rule.

They include the jailing of an opposition mayor who allowed anti-government protests to happen in his Caracas district, and the firing of the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, who is an outspoken critic of the president.

A powerful member of the Constituent Assembly and close Maduro ally, Diosdado Cabello, said parliamentary immunity could be lifted "for everyone" in the legislature to open the way to prosecution.

The new assembly, ostensibly brought in to rewrite the constitution but handed sweeping powers to override all other branches of government, was elected on July 30 in polls marred by violence and allegations of fraud.

The developments have prompted cries from the United States and major Latin American nations that Venezuela has become a "dictatorship."

- International condemnation -

On Tuesday, a dozen nations in the region, plus Canada, condemned Venezuela for "breaking democratic rule."

The group -- including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico -- said they would not recognize the Constituent Assembly or its decisions.

The United States has imposed direct sanctions on Maduro, and warned further punishment could follow. US Vice President Mike Pence is to visit Latin America next week to hold discussions on "shared economic and security goals."

The UN rights office has slammed Venezuela's "excessive force" against protesters who object to the Constituent Assembly and are angry about an economic crisis that has seen lines for scarce food and medicine, runaway inflation and a tanking currency.

Since the protests turned violent four months ago, nearly 130 people have died.

But Venezuela is not entirely isolated internationally.

It can count on the support of Russia and China -- which have granted tens of billions of dollars in loans to Venezuela -- as well as leftist allies Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, and small Caribbean nations to which it gives cheap oil.

Protests against Maduro have become muted in the past week as authorities intensified a clampdown, though the opposition urged them to continue.

- Loyal military -

Venezuela's military, meanwhile, was hunting a small rebel group led by two renegade officers that raided an army base over the weekend and made off with weapons from its armory.

Maduro and Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino described the attackers as "terrorists" with links to the US, insisting they were not part of any insurgency within the armed forces.

On Tuesday, the Constituent Assembly unanimously voted in support of the military as Padrino addressed the body in uniform to emphasize the army's loyalty and "revolutionary" credentials.

Maduro later attended a meeting of allied nations he had invited to Caracas to call for dialogue with his regional rivals.

"The right wing across Latin America has broken the rules of the game and our way of living side by side," he told representatives from Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador and Caribbean states.

"I think what we need is regional dialogue... in which Venezuela would be respected."

The leader reaffirmed that the difficulties he was facing domestically and internationally were driven by an "imperialist" United States that wanted Venezuela's oil.

"Venezuela is the big prize, the jewel of the crown -- that's what they say in the corridors in Washington," he said.