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New 'Constituent Assembly' To Sit In Venezuela


This could be an important moment for Venezuela, a country that has been suffering through a period of such political and economic crisis, not to mention food shortages. After a widely discredited election, a new Assembly is expected to sit for the first time today. And supporters of President Nicolas Maduro say this could be a step toward stability.

But the Venezuelan state prosecutor's office has asked a local court to halt the inauguration of this Assembly following allegations that the government fixed an election. Gideon Long has been reporting from Venezuela for the Financial Times. He's on the line with us. Gideon, good morning.

GIDEON LONG: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So allegations of a fixed election - that does not sound like this is moving quickly towards a feeling of stability and hope for this country.

LONG: It doesn't. And those allegations have only got worse during the week. There have been allegations that the vote was around half as much as what it said. The president, Nicolas Maduro, said around 8.1 million people voted in the election, but there's been lots of evidence that the election was tampered with and that it wasn't genuine.

The opposition says that the whole thing is a fraud. And they called for today's ceremony to be called off. We'll wait and see if it's going to happen. It's already been delayed by 24 hours. It was due to take place yesterday. We will wait. We will see if it happens today.

GREENE: And just so - so remind us, if you can, President Maduro - I mean, he was planning to bring in this Assembly, claiming that he got all this support from all these people who turned out to vote, although, as you say, that's in doubt. But he wants to rewrite the constitution. Right?

LONG: He wants to rewrite the constitution. And actually, though he went further than that, this new Congress has powers to not only rewrite the constitution but to dissolve the Parliament, the democratically elected Parliament; to draft laws and to, if it wants to, to approve new joint ventures - to pretty much do anything that the president wants it to do.

There are 545 members in the new Parliament, and almost all of them are either party members or, if not, then they're sympathetic to the government. So really, it gives Nicolas Maduro a carte blanche to do pretty much whatever he wants to do.

Now, the flip side of that is that there's been so much international outcry over the Parliament and it's been largely discredited in the eyes of the international community, that he might find it difficult to actually push through its laws. He may be able to push through the laws through Parliament, but he won't then be able to get the international community to take them on board. So we'll wait and see and see how effective it actually is.

GREENE: OK. So you have Maduro claiming that these bold moves just have to happen to help the country get through this. You have opposition leaders who say that he is just trying to amass more power. But opposition leaders, I mean, they're calling for a march in Caracas today to protest this Assembly. But you had these opposition mayors who've been sentenced to prison. It sounds like the government is really cracking down on its opposition.

LONG: It is cracking down. The most serious - or the most notable example of that is the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, who is Venezuela's best-known political prisoner. He was under house arrest for most of last month, but he's now been thrown back in jail. There have been several opposition mayors who've been arrested, and they've also been jailed. And at least four opposition-friendly magistrates who were due to take their place in an alternative Supreme Court - they have taken refuge in the Chilean Embassy here in Caracas. And they have been offered asylum by the Chilean government.

So there is a serious crackdown on the opposition, and it looks as though it's going to get worse as well. The Supreme Court here, which is packed with Maduro supporters, has announced more measures against opposition mayors and against magistrates.

GREENE: All right - Gideon Long is a correspondent for the Financial Times. He joined us from Caracas in Venezuela. Gideon, thanks so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

LONG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BECK SONG, "WHERE IT'S AT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.