National assembly calls for rebellion as Venezuela referendum is suspended

Sitting of assembly disrupted by supporters of Chavista president Nicolás Maduro

Socialist Party leader Jorge Rodríguez (in red shirt) tries to dissuade supporters of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from entering the national assembly on Sunday. Photograph: Cristian Hernández/EPA

Socialist Party leader Jorge Rodríguez (in red shirt) tries to dissuade supporters of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from entering the national assembly on Sunday. Photograph: Cristian Hernández/EPA

 

Venezuela’s opposition-controlled national assembly has called for a popular rebellion against the Chavista government of president Nicolás Maduro, risking further chaos in the crisis-stricken South American nation.

In a tense session on Sunday night, the assembly said the decision by the Maduro regime to suspend a recall referendum on his mandate amounted to “a rupture of the constitutional order” and called on the Venezuelan people to “defend” the constitution.

The late-night sitting was temporarily suspended after Chavista militants invaded the building in Caracas. The assembly also said it would denounce before the International Criminal Court in the Hague members of Venezuela’s Chavista-dominated national electoral council for suspending the recall referendum.

The assembly also said it would move immediately to remove the electoral council’s members as well as justices on the country’s supreme court. Control over the judiciary has been an important prop to the Maduro administration since it lost control of the assembly last December in a crushing defeat in midterm elections.

“The people have the right to rebel,” said the opposition leader Julio Borges. “In Venezuela we see an ongoing coup d’état which reached a peak with the theft of the recall referendum.”

Mr Maduro was widely expected to lose the vote amid a grave economic and social crisis as the legacy of years of state mismanagement by Chavista governments was exposed by the collapse in the price of oil, virtually the country’s only export.

So grave has Venezuela’s economic predicament become that China, virtually its last source of foreign financing, has reportedly warned the government in Caracas that new loans will not be forthcoming, something that would further aggravate a budgetary crisis.

The economic crisis has been exacerbated by corruption. Since taking control of the assembly, the opposition United Democratic Table (MUD) alliance has opened probes into allegations that officials close to former populist president Hugo Chávez looted billions of euro from the state, further stoking political tensions.

Earlier this month a congressional report said that $11 billion (€10 billion) had been looted from state oil company PDVSA between 2004 and 2014. Despite exploiting the world’s biggest oil reserves, the company said this month that it could default on its debts due to a severe cash crunch.

The economic and political crises have resulted in an accelerating breakdown of social order in Venezuela. In recent months violence has increased sharply in a country that already had one of the world’s highest homicide rates. In one gruesome case, authorities admit they are investigating reports that two prisoners were killed and eaten by fellow inmates during a month-long rebellion at a jail in the western city of San Cristóbal.

As chaos increases, more and more Venezuelans are fleeing the country. More than 120,000 crossed over into Colombia in July alone in search of food, while authorities in the remote northern Brazilian state of Roraima have been placed under pressure by the arrival of 30,000 migrants since the crisis deepened.

Venezuela’s neighbours have become increasingly nervous at the erratic behaviour of the Caracas regime. At the weekend, Colombian airline Avianca temporarily suspended flights to the country after a Venezuelan airforce fighter approached one of its commercial flights on Friday night. The airline is one of the few foreign carriers that still flies to the country after most companies suspended routes as a result of the crisis.

Neighbouring governments have called for dialogue between Venezuela’s government and opposition, but have so far been unable to bring the two sides together.