Venezuela’s Maduro Trains Sights on Opposition’s Last Bastion: Congress

Venezuela’s Maduro Trains Sights on Opposition’s Last Bastion: Congress

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party announced on Monday that its lawmakers are taking back their seats in Venezuela’s congress after a three-year boycott, targeting the power base of the president’s chief rival.

The congress is led by Juan Guaidó, who in January claimed to be the country’s rightful president, and it is the only governing body not under Mr. Maduro’s control.

The re-entry of the Socialist legislators threatens not only the independence of congress but also the platform Mr. Guaidó has used to build his legitimacy domestically and internationally as he challenges Mr. Maduro’s presidency.

The ruling party’s announcement is the latest step in an increasingly complex nine-month political struggle between Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó. While Mr. Maduro retains control of the military and the government bureaucracy, Mr. Guaidó draws on popular support and recognition from the United States and nearly 60 other countries.

Mr. Guaidó’s attempts to unseat Mr. Maduro this year through mass protests, military defections, American sanctions and mediated talks have run up against the government’s brutal repression and skillful political maneuvering, resulting in a tense impasse. Sensing weakness, Mr. Maduro has now gone on the offensive.

On Tuesday, Mr. Maduro’s main negotiator and political adviser, Jorge Rodríguez, signed what he called a “peace deal” with several minor opposition parties outside of Mr. Guaidó’s coalition. Under the deal, Mr. Maduro’s government said, 55 of its allied lawmakers will retake seats in congress, reform the electoral council and release some political prisoners.

Mr. Rodriguez said, “This shows the absolute disposition of President Nicolas Maduro to keep all the doors open.”

Mr. Guaidó brushed off Mr. Maduro’s “peace deal” at a news conference Tuesday, calling it an attempt to divert attention from the country’s crippling crisis.

“They have tried these maneuvers in the past,” he said. “These measures only deepen the crisis and international isolation.”

The congress has been the main source of the opposition’s international legitimacy since opposition candidates won a two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections in 2015. Mr. Maduro’s loyalists had responded by leaving the congress, stripping away its powers and hounding dozens of opposition lawmakers into exile.

The 55 ruling coalition lawmakers set up a parallel legislature to rubber-stamp Mr. Maduro’s proposals. However, they remained legally elected representatives, so can reclaim their seats in congress.

Analysts say Monday’s deal paved the way for Mr. Maduro to call new congressional elections as early as January, despite boycott threats from the main opposition parties.

In striking an agreement with smaller parties shunned by Mr. Guaidó, Mr. Maduro is trying to create the appearance of wide social accord to legitimize new elections, said Ricardo Sucre, a political-science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas.

“This leaves the opposition fractured,” said Mr. Sucre. “This is a tough blow for Guaidó.”

While the United States said it would not recognize a new Venezuelan election with Mr. Maduro in power, new parliamentary elections may be more palatable to some of Mr. Guaidó’s European allies, which have grown increasingly frustrated by the diplomatic limbo created by his presidential bid.

The return of the ruling party lawmakers also threatens the opposition’s congressional majority. Escalating repression has already decimated the lawmakers’ ranks, leaving them struggling to meet a quorum and keep the congress running. In private, some opposition congressmen say the government will try to wrestle the majority away by allying with smaller parties, stepping up the repression and courting defections.

Venezuela’s main opposition parties have previously accused the smaller factions that signed a pact with Mr. Maduro of opportunism and corruption. Leaders of the smaller parties say any political accord that lowers the tensions is in the nation’s interest.

Mr. Guaidó’s ambassador in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, told reporters on Tuesday that an opposition delegation may travel to New York later this month to attend side events at the annual United Nations General Assembly. The move would probably lead to diplomatic friction with Mr. Maduro’s allies China and Russia.

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