Venezuela’s newly formed Constituent Assembly began work on Friday despite the controversy and international outcry over its expected role in rewriting the constitution.
The 545-member assembly unanimously elected well-known allies of President Nicolas Maduro to its leadership in a show of unity, signaling that the socialists have put aside differences to focus on consolidating the all-powerful body.
Former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, a close Maduro ally was elected to the presidency while former Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz will serve as vice president. Maduro has promised that rewriting the 1999 constitution will end the turmoil rocking his impoverished yet oil-rich nation. He has rejected the criticism lobbed at him, saying the revised constitution would be put to a referendum.
The leadership notably excludes Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, a long-time rival for power to Maduro, who himself put Rodriguez’s name forward.
“There is no humanitarian crisis here, what we have is love, what we have is a crisis of the right-wing fascists,” said Rodriguez, dressed in a bright red pantsuit, in an opening speech that paid homage to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
“The people arrived with fighting spirit, on their feet.”
The assembly will function in the same downtown Caracas palace complex as the existing opposition-run congress, which could potentially be dissolved by the new all-powerful body. The two bodies are expected to hold sessions in parallel, separated by an ornate cobblestone courtyard.
The largely ceremonial installation of the constituent assembly offered few hints as what its first moves would be.
Leaders including Maduro and Cabello have in recent days suggested it would quickly move against Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who broke with the government this year and described the assembly election as a fraud.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Friday issued an order to Venezuela to protect Ortega. It believed her life was at risk after breaking with Maduro and launching an investigation into the legality of the Constituent Assembly.
Governments ranging from Latin American neighbors to the United States and European Union have condemned the assembly, with the Vatican making a last minute plea for authorities to suspend it.
Brazil on Friday recommended that Venezuela be suspended from trade bloc Mercosur until it returns to democracy. The South American trading bloc was meeting on Saturday in Brazil to decide whether Venezuelan should be suspended from it for “breaching democratic order.”
Rodriguez on Friday said: “The international community should not make a mistake over Venezuela. The message is clear, very clear: we Venezuelans will resolve our conflict, our crisis without any form of foreign interference.”
US President Donald Trump to label Maduro a dictator, a term the opposition has long used to describe the unpopular leader.
Protests against the inauguration of the assembly by the opposition were relatively modest.
Demonstrators have for four months been clashing with security forces, often building barricades and lobbing rocks at security forces. At least 125 people have been killed in the unrest.
Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, who had encouraged protests against the constituent assembly, on Friday morning was returned to house arrest after being briefly put back in prison.
Ledezma and fellow opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez had been taken to prison from house arrest early on Tuesday.
It was not immediately evident if Lopez would also be returned to his home.
Panama on Friday granted political asylum to two justices recently appointed by the opposition Congress to an alternative Supreme Court. Four other justices named to the alternate tribunal remain holed up in the residence of Chile’s ambassador.
The legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly has been thrown into question by claims of fraud, most notably by a British-based firm, Smartmartic, which was involved in supplying the technology for the July 30 vote.
Smartmatic said the official turnout figure had been “tampered with” and exaggerated by at least one million voters.