Canadian Sanctions on Venezuela’s Maduro

Canada imposed on Friday sanctions on 40 Venezuelan senior officials, including President Nicolas Maduro, to punish what it called “anti-democratic behavior.”

The Canadian move came after similar steps by the United States, which has referred to Maduro as a “dictator.”

The measure, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement, aims to “send a clear message to key figures in the Maduro regime that their anti-democratic behavior has consequences.”

The installation in Venezuela last month of an all-powerful, loyalist assembly that supersedes the country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly triggered international scorn.

Specifically, the sanctions seek to “maintain pressure on the government of Venezuela to restore constitutional order and respect the democratic rights of its people.”

They target 40 Venezuelan officials and individuals, including Maduro himself, who Ottawa says “played a key role in undermining the security, stability and integrity of democratic institutions of Venezuela.”

Others listed include Minister of Defense Vladimir Lopez, Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council, and Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday he believed there was a chance for a political solution.

“This is a situation that is obviously untenable. The violence … needs to end and we are looking to be helpful,” he told reporters at the United Nations.

French President Meets Venezuela Opposition Leaders


French President Emmanuel Macron met on Monday with Venezuela opposition leaders in an effort to tackle the South American country’s dire humanitarian situation in wake of its ongoing political crisis.

Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly, and Freddy Guevara, the legislature’s first vice president, met the French leader in Paris. They are proceeding with meetings scheduled this week with European leaders aimed at increasing international pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to hold elections, respect a balance of power and allow humanitarian aid.

Borges and Guevara told Macron that Venezuelans are in dire need of basic necessities like food and medicine at the same time that Maduro’s government is stripping away basic civil rights. Borges said Macron asked “several times what he could do to relieve the crisis” and offered the possibility of providing humanitarian aid.

“Dozens of countries have offered free food and medicine and it’s unbelievable that the main obstacle is (the) government, the one which is supposed to defend the rights of the Venezuelan people,” Borges said.

“We want the government of Maduro to open the door to this humanitarian help.”

Hours after the meeting, Macron’s office issued a statement by the president indicating he was ready to push for European sanctions against Maduro’s administration.

Condemning what he called repression of the opposition, Macron said France was ready to launch European discussions “toward adopting measures targeting those responsible for this situation.” He did not elaborate on what he had in mind.

The situation in Venezuela has a particular resonance in France, where the far-left France Unbowed party, currently Macron’s most vocal opponent, backs Maduro.

Monday’s meeting took place two days after a leading activist was barred from leaving Venezuela in order to attend the Paris meeting.

Foreign nations including Spain and the United Kingdom, whose leaders are expected to meet with members of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly this week, have decried the socialist government’s move to bar Lilian Tintori from leaving Venezuela.

Tintori, a prominent opposition activist, was scheduled to attend the meeting with Macron but Venezuelan immigration authorities seized her passport Saturday as she prepared to board her flight.

No official explanation has been given for why Tintori was barred from traveling, but it came a day after she was ordered to appear before a judge to answer questions about a large sum of cash found in her vehicle.

“They cannot silence the voice of 30 million Venezuelans,” Tintori said on her Twitter account, adding that Guevara had given Macron a letter from her.

Those who did make the Europe trip are also scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In Caracas on Monday, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza summoned ambassadors from Spain, Germany Italy and the United Kingdom to issue a note of protest accusing them of meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

“These types of expressions are absurd and offensive to the functioning of Venezuelan democracy and its institutions,” Arreaza said.

Maduro’s government has been criticized by the United Nations, Washington and other governments for failing to allow the entry of foreign aid to ease a severe economic crisis, while it overrides Venezuela’s opposition-led congress and jails hundreds of opponents.

The opposition won control of congress in 2015. But Maduro’s loyalist Supreme Court has tossed out every major law it has passed as the oil-rich country slips deeper into a recession exacerbated by triple-digit inflation and acute shortages of food and medicines.

UN Rights Chief Says Democracy in Venezuela ‘Barely Alive’

Venezuelan police clash with opposition activists during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas.

Geneva, Caracas- The UN human rights office of the high commissioner accused on Wednesday Venezuela of extensive human rights violations and abuses in the context of anti-Government protests, questioning whether democracy was still functioning at all in the crisis-torn country.

President Nicolas Maduro “was elected by the people,” UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told reporters in Geneva, but added that the government’s recent actions “support the feeling that what is left of democratic life in Venezuela is being squeezed”.

Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron’s accusation Tuesday that Maduro was creating a “dictatorship”, Zeid was quoted by AFP as saying that there had been “an erosion of democratic life”.

“It must be barely alive, if still alive.”

His comments came as his office released a fresh report accusing Venezuelan authorities of implementing a policy of repression to crack down on months of street protests against Maduro.

“The generalized and systematic use of excessive force during demonstrations and the arbitrary detention of protesters and perceived political opponents indicate that these were not the illegal or rogue acts of isolated officials,” the report said.

The extent of the violations “points to the existence of a policy to repress political dissent and instill fear in the population to curb demonstrations at the cost of Venezuelans’ rights and freedoms”, it added.

Venezuela, which is suffering from an acute economic crisis marked by shortages of basic goods, has experienced months of street demonstrations against Maduro that have left 125 people dead, according to prosecutors.

“The government must ensure there are prompt, independent and effective investigations of the human rights violations allegedly committed by the security forces,” as well as by pro-government groups and armed protesters, Zeid said.

Venezuela Ex-Top Prosecutor in Colombia as Constituent Assembly Defies International outcry


Venezuela’s former top prosecutor Luisa Ortega arrived in Colombia on Friday after she was fired by the new controversial Constituent Assembly that has continued to defy international condemnation in its attempts to clamp down on dissent in the South American country.

Ortega broke with socialist President Nicolas Maduro in late March and became a vocal critic of his unpopular government, eventually going into hiding after the newly elected assembly fired her earlier this month.

The assembly fired Ortega during its first session on August 5, but she and some governments in the region have refused to accept the body’s decisions.

“This afternoon the attorney general of Venezuela Luisa Ortega Diaz arrived from Aruba in a private plane to Bogota’s airport and completed the corresponding migration process,” Colombia’s migration agency said in a statement.

She was accompanied by her husband, the legislator German Ferrer, the statement added. It was not clear whether the couple were seeking asylum in Colombia.

The 59-year-old told Reuters in an interview this month that she feared the government would “deprive me of my life.”

Her replacement, ex-human rights ombudsman Tarek Saab, this week outlined corruption accusations against Ortega and her husband.

The couple are accused of running an “extortion gang” and funneling profits into an account in the Bahamas.

More than 120 people have been killed during often violent unrest against Maduro’s government over a crippling economic crisis and what opponents call his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Colombia is among the Latin American countries which have roundly criticized Maduro, while also condemning a suggestion by US President Donald Trump that a military intervention was an option to solve the crisis.

On Saturday, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress rejected the self-proclaimed lawmaking authority of the Constituent Assembly, widening the political divide in the crisis-hit country.

Congress’s declaration of resistance followed statements from a group of 12 regional nations plus the United States on Friday, saying they would continue to regard congress, not the new assembly, as the Venezuela’s only legitimate lawmaking body.

“This is a congress in resistance of an armed military dictatorship that took over its authority and gained militarily what it could not gain at the ballot box,” congress Vice President Freddy Guevara said in a special session.

Venezuela’s ongoing political standoff took another dramatic turn Friday after the constitutional assembly approved a decree taking over congress’ powers to pass legislation of vital importance to the crisis-wracked nation.

Lawmakers and several foreign governments decried the move as an attempt to dissolve congress, although Maduro’s supporters insist lawmakers can continue to meet and have appealed for an agreement so the two bodies can coexist.

Guevara compared the offer to that of a kidnapper allowing his captives to use the bathroom and said lawmakers would only be removed by force.

“They will have to kick us out with bullets,” said Guevara, who tore up a copy of the edict while presiding over the special session. “But we will continue to defend this space the Venezuelan people gave us as long as we have the will and the means to do so.”

Government opponents had warned that the all-powerful constitutional assembly would move to squash dissent following an election for its members last month that was boycotted by the opposition and criticized by many foreign governments as an illegitimate power grab.

In recent days Venezuelans have watched as a steady parade of top officials, including Maduro, kneeled before the assembly charged with rewriting the 1999 constitution and recognized it as the country’s supreme authority.

But when leaders of congress were summoned to do the same on Friday they refused, saying they consider it a betrayal of the 14 million voters who took part in 2015 parliamentary elections that gave Maduro’s critics their first toehold on power in almost two decades of socialist rule.

Guevara accused the government of being desperate to circumvent congress so it can raise badly needed cash by selling off what’s left of Venezuela’s vast oil and mineral wealth to allies like Russia and China.

Venezuela Vows to Jail Protest Leaders as US Urges S. American Pressure on Maduro


Venezuela vowed on Thursday that it would crackdown and jail the leaders of violent protests that have been taking place in the country since April as the US Vice President called on Latin American countries to step up pressure on Caracas.

Venezuela’s new top prosecutor Tarek Saab pledged to track down the leaders of the protests that have left more than 120 people dead.

He made his vow a day before a hate crimes law was expected to be approved despite fears that it will be used to crush dissent. The new law “against hate and intolerance,” denounced by rights groups as a sham aimed at persecuting the opposition, was set to be approved on Friday by a new legislative superbody elected last month at the behest of President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro loyalist Delcy Rodriguez, head of the body known as the constituent assembly, said the law would be passed before the weekend.

“It will be a point of honor for the public prosecutor’s office to identify who was responsible for each of the hate crimes that occurred in this country,” Saab, Maduro’s ex-human rights ombudsman, shouted during a speech to the assembly.

“We will search the cameras, videos, photographs. We will get images of each one of them to make sure they pay for having killed, for having hurt people and left orphans behind,” he said to a standing ovation by the Socialist Party-dominated assembly.

The international community, however, has pointed at the Maduro government, not opposition demonstrators, when assigning blame for deaths.

Venezuelan security forces and pro-government groups were believed responsible for the deaths of at least 73 demonstrators since April, the United Nations said in an August 8 report.

Abuses of protesters, including torture, were part of “the breakdown of the rule of law” in the oil-rich but economically-ailing nation, the report said.

Those found guilty of expressing hate or intolerance will be punished with up to 25 years in jail, according to the vaguely worded hate crimes bill.

Groups like Human Rights Watch say it would give Maduro’s government carte blanche to take opposition leaders out of circulation ahead of October gubernatorial elections.

The assembly has established a truth commission to investigate opposition candidates to ensure that any who were involved in violent protests would be barred from running for governorships, Rodriguez said.

The opposition, which won control of congress in 2015 only to see its decisions nullified by Maduro’s loyalist Supreme Court, boycotted the July 30 election of the constituent assembly. The body has sweeping powers to re-write Venezuela’s constitution and even give Maduro permission to rule by decree.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence urged Latin American leaders to intensify pressure on the Venezuelan government, which many fear is on the cusp of dictatorship and civil war.

He made his remarks during a tour of the newly expanded Panama Canal Thursday as he wrapped up a trip to Latin America. Pence met with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela before departing for Washington Thursday evening.

Pence has spent much of his visit working to assure Latin American allies that the United States remains invested in the region despite President Donald Trump’s “America first” rhetoric.

That mission was complicated by Trump’s surprise suggestion right before Pence left that a “military option” might be on the table for Venezuela. Leaders across the region made clear to Pence that they strongly rejected the suggestion.

“Chile will do its utmost to support Venezuela to find a peaceful way out,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said Wednesday. “But Chile will not support military interventions, nor coup d’état.”

Maduro Orders Military Exercises after Trump Threat


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday ordered the military to conduct exercises after US President Donald Trump’s threat of a possible armed intervention in the crisis-stricken country.

Maduro told a crowd of supporters in Caracas that he had organized a round of military drills for August 26-27 in response to the threat. 

“I have given the order to the armed forces’ joint chiefs of staff to start preparations for a national civil-military exercise for the integrated armed defense of the Venezuelan nation,” he said.

He vowed to defend his country “with tanks, planes and missiles” as the crowd chanted “Yankee go home!”

Trump said on Friday that the US was mulling a range of options against Venezuela, “including a possible military option if necessary.”

His words have bolstered Caracas’s oft-repeated claim that Washington has designs to grab control of its proven oil reserves, the largest in the world.

Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino called Trump’s comments “crazy,” saying it showed America had “dropped its mask” in terms of wanting to attack his country.

In a speech, he warned that Washington wanted to steal the OPEC nation’s oil reserves.

As Maduro told supporters in Caracas to prepare for an “imperialist” invasion, US Vice President Mike Pence sought to calm concerns in the region about Trump’s talk, promising a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s “collapse into dictatorship.”

Pence said the US was confident that a peaceful solution could be found to the country’s political and economic crises.

The country last month, at Maduro’s behest, elected a “constituent assembly” with sweeping powers including the
capacity to rewrite the constitution. Maduro says the assembly will bring peace to the country.

His adversaries boycotted the election, calling it a power grab meant to keep the ruling Socialist Party in power and insisting it will do nothing to tame soaring inflation or resolve food and medicine shortages.

Trump Studies ‘Military Option’ in Venezuela as Caracas, Lima Sever Ties


US President Donald Trump did not rule out on Friday the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela as the south American country and Peru severed their ties.

“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump told reporters.

“We have troops all over the world in places that are very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they’re dying.”

Washington has slapped sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro and some of his allies, and branded him a “dictator” over his attempts to crush his country’s opposition. Venezuela has in turn accused America of “imperialist aggression.”

But Trump’s latest comments were the first sign that he is mulling military intervention.

“Venezuela is a mess. It is very dangerous mess and a very sad situation,” he added.

He stated Venezuela’s political crisis was among the topics discussed at the talks he hosted at his golf club in New Jersey with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

But if any US military contingency planning is under way, it must be in its early stages. A Pentagon spokesman, Eric Pahon, refused to elaborate on Trump’s comments, adding: “As of right now, the Pentagon has received no orders.”

The White House said Trump would only agree to speak with Maduro “as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” after the Venezuelan leader requested a phone call with the American president.

Trump’s military warning came two days after his administration imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, targeting members of a loyalist assembly installed last week to bolster what Washington calls Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defense minister, dismissed the threat as “an act of craziness, an act of supreme extremism.”

“There is an extremist elite governing the United States and honestly I don’t know what’s happening, what is going to happen in the world,” Padrino said.

The Venezuelan government had previously responded to the sanctions — which already targeted Maduro himself — by saying the US was “making a fool of itself in front of the world.”

Venezuela has been gripped by street demonstrations for the past four months. Nearly 130 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.

The protests have lost steam in the past week as security forces have stepped up repression and demonstrators have grown discouraged by the opposition’s failure to bring about change.

Later on Friday, Peru ordered the expulsion of Venezuela’s ambassador over his country’s “break with democratic rule” under Maduro, and Caracas followed hours later with its own tit-for-tat response.

Ambassador Diego Molero has five days to leave Peru, the foreign ministry said. In Venezuela, the government responded by expelling Lima’s top envoy Carlos Rossi, with the same deadline given.

“In light of the measure adopted by the Peruvian government, we find ourselves in the lamentable obligation to expel the charge d’affaires of Peru in Venezuela,” a Venezuelan foreign ministry statement read.

It labeled Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as an “enemy” of Venezuela, accusing him of “continually interfering” in the country’s internal affairs.

Peru’s decision came days after its congress voted for the Venezuelan envoy to be kicked out.

“The Peruvian government ratifies its firm position of continuing to contribute to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” a statement said.

On Tuesday, Peru and 11 other major nations in the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mexico, slammed Caracas for undermining democracy by establishing a new, all-powerful assembly of Maduro loyalists to override the opposition-controlled legislature.

UN Decries ‘Excessive Use of Force’ in Venezuela as Contentious Assembly Meets again


The United Nations condemned on Tuesday the “widespread and systematic use of excessive force” against anti-government protesters.

The UN rights office accused security forces and pro-government groups of being responsible for at least 73 protester deaths.

Presenting the preliminary findings from an investigation conducted in June and July, the office described “a picture of widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela.”

“Witness accounts suggest that security forces, mainly the National Guard, the National Police and local police forces, have systematically used disproportionate force to instill fear, crush dissent, and to prevent demonstrators from assembling, rallying and reaching public institutions to present petitions,” the rights office said in a statement.

“Government authorities have rarely condemned such incidents,” it stressed.

The UN accusations came as President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.

Venezuela, which is suffering from an acute economic crisis marked by shortages of basic goods, has experienced four months of street demonstrations against Maduro that have left 125 people dead.

The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew international condemnation.

After receiving no response to repeated requests for access to Venezuela to investigate the situation in the country, UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein deployed a team of human rights officers to monitor the country remotely.

The investigators conducted 135 interviews between June 6 and July 31 with victims and their families, witnesses, civil society organizations, journalists, lawyers and doctors, among others.

“Since the wave of demonstrations began in April, there has been a clear pattern of excessive force used against protesters,” Zeid said in the statement.

“Several thousand people have been arbitrarily detained, many reportedly subjected to ill-treatment and even torture, while several hundred have been brought before military rather than civilian courts,” he said, stressing that “these patterns show no signs of abating.”

According to the preliminary findings, security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 46 of the protester deaths, while pro-government armed groups were behind 27.

It remained unclear who was behind the remaining deaths, the rights office said.

At the same time, nearly 2,000 people have been injured, while more than 5,050 people have been arbitrarily arrested, with over 1,000 reportedly still in detention, it said.

The rights office also decried “credible reports of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by security forces of such detainees, amounting in several cases to torture,” saying tactics included “electric shocks, beatings.., suffocation with gas, and threats of killings, and in some cases threats of sexual violence.”

Zeid warned that “these violations have occurred amid the breakdown of the rule of law in Venezuela, with constant attacks by the Government against the National Assembly and the Attorney-General’s Office.”

“The responsibility for the human rights violations we are recording lies at the highest levels of government,” he said.

Foreign ministers from 14 nations are meanwhile meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis.

Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.

Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the Constituent Assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

The assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.

“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.

Maduro Vows ‘Maximum Penalty’ against Military Base Attackers


A group of around 20 men attacked on early Sunday a military base in Venezuela’s third largest city, as President Nicolas Maduro vowed to lay down the “maximum penalty” against the perpetrators.

Led by an army officer, the group made off with weapons after a three-hour attack on the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia on early Sunday, officials said.

The raid ended with two of the attackers being killed and eight captured, Maduro said on state television. The other 10 escaped with weapons taken from the facility, according to officials who said an “intense search” was underway for them.

Maduro said that the military was hunting down the “mercenaries,” claiming the “terrorist” group had ties to Colombia and the United States.

The armed forces said in a statement “a group of civilian criminals wearing military uniforms and a first lieutenant who had deserted” carried out the attack.

In a video posted online just before the attack, a man presenting himself as an army captain named Juan Caguaripano declared a “legitimate rebellion… to reject the murderous tyranny of Nicolas Maduro.”

Speaking with 15 men in camouflage standing by him, some of them armed, he demanded a transitional government and “free elections.”

It was not known if he was the lieutenant referred to in the military statement, demoted for deserting, or whether he was another renegade officer.

That statement said the lieutenant involved had deserted three years ago and taken refuge in Miami, in the US state of Florida.

In 2014, Caguaripano released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro during a previous wave of anti-government unrest. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to what he said was discontent within military ranks.

Maduro said the lieutenant, among those captured, was “actively giving information and we have testimony from seven of the civilians.”

Maduro congratulated the army for its “immediate reaction” in putting down the attack, saying they earned his “admiration.”

Venezuela’s opposition has repeatedly urged the military to abandon Maduro.

But Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, the head of the armed forces, has said the military’s loyalty was unshakable.

The incident heightened fears that Venezuela’s deepening political and economic crisis could explode into greater violence, perhaps open armed conflict.

Officials insisted afterward that all was normal across the country.

Military helicopters flew overhead and tactical armored vehicles patrolled the streets in Valencia in a climate of tension on Sunday after the attack.

Locals said a nighttime curfew was imposed. Police dispersed protesters who had set up flaming barricades across roads.

Venezuela has become increasingly isolated internationally as Maduro tightens his hold on power through a contested loyalist assembly that started work this week.

The opposition, which controls the legislature, has been sidelined. Its leaders are under threat of arrest after organizing protests — fiercely countered by security forces — that have left 125 people dead in the past four months.

The new Constituent Assembly, packed with Maduro allies including the president’s wife and son, has quickly used its supreme powers to clamp down on dissent.

On Saturday, it ordered the dismissal of the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, who had broken ranks with Maduro to become one of his most vociferous critics.

The United States accuses Maduro of installing an “authoritarian dictatorship” that has turned Venezuela into an international pariah. The United States, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Peru have slammed the “illegal” sacking of Ortega.

And Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil have indefinitely suspended Venezuela from the South American trading bloc Mercosur for its “rupture of the democratic order.”

The constitutional assembly is expected to meet again Tuesday, while lawmakers in the opposition-controlled National Assembly scheduled their own session for Monday, vowing to continue fulfilling their responsibilities no matter what the assembly might do. Leaders of opposition groups, which boycotted the July 30 assembly election, called for renewed protests on Monday, though turnout at demonstrations has been sparse in recent days.

Venezuela’s Divisive Constituent Assembly Begins Work


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.