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World

Opposition In Venezuelan Legislature Drives New Direction – And Resistance

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now to Venezuela, where there's a revolution going on in the halls of Congress, after winning recent elections, the opposition now controls a legislature for the first time in 17 years. Lawmakers hope to use their new power to remove Venezuela's beleaguered president. John Otis reports from Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At his state of the union address last month, President Nicolas Maduro spoke before Venezuela's Congress for three hours. But then a funny thing happened.

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HENRY RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Opposition leader Henry Ramos, the new president of Congress, took the microphone. He spent the next half hour scolding Maduro. Despite Venezuela's massive oil wealth, Ramos said the president's socialist policies have led to food shortages and the world's highest inflation rate.

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RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Amid catcalls from Maduro's supporters, Ramos declared, you better get used to it. His comments, broadcast on live TV, electrified Venezuelans. Ever since the late Hugo Chavez ushered in a leftist revolution in 1999, his Socialist Party has dominated Congress and all other branches of government. Neither Chavez nor Maduro had ever before been so thoroughly dressed down in public. In fact, the Socialist Party held such tight control over Congress that, for the past five years, it banned independent journalists from the building.

MARCOS MORIN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Marcos Morin says he and other congressional reporters could only monitor the sessions by watching them on state-run television. But with the opposition now in control, reporters have been allowed back inside the colonial-era legislative palace. The top priority for this new Congress is to introduce free market reforms to rescue the economy. With oil prices collapsing, the International Monetary Fund predicts Venezuela's economy will shrink by 8 percent this year and that inflation could top 700 percent. That's why even hardcore Maduro supporters are now starting to question his socialist policies.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

ILDENIS MEJIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ildenis Mejias, who teaches elementary school in a Caracas slum, says that she and her friends have always voted for either Chavez or Maduro for president.

MEJIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "But now," she says, "the country really needs to move in a new direction for the benefit of everyone." However, analysts say that the executive branch is doing all it can to undermine the legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: For example, the outgoing Congress spent its final days in office swearing in presidential allies as Supreme Court judges. They are expected to strike down laws passed by the new Congress. Cabinet officials have refused to appear before lawmakers to discuss the economic crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In an interview with NPR, Ramos, the congressional leader, said that if the gridlock continues, the opposition within six months will seek a peaceful way to remove Maduro from office. Ramos said that could happen through a recall vote or a constitutional amendment to shorten the president's term. But the effort would face legal challenges as well as fierce resistance from Maduro. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.