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There Was a Lot of Yelling During the First Session of Venezuela’s New Congress

Tuesday's heated inauguration of the first opposition-controlled Congress in Venezuela since President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999 suggested tense times ahead as the country's economy struggles.
January 5, 2016, 10:00pm
Photo by Miguel Gutierrez/EPA

Venezuela's first opposition-dominated congress in 17 years was sworn in this Tuesday in a heated session in which chants of "Liberty" and "Yes We Could" competed with those of "Assassins" and "Chávez Lives".

The new congress represents a major political challenge to the so-called Bolivarian Revolution started in 1999 by President Hugo Chávez who, prior to his death in 2013, entrusted it to President Nicolás Maduro.

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The tension began early in the day with noisy, though largely peaceful, street protests from both camps.

Opposition sympathizers accompanied the newly-elected opposition deputies through lines of soldiers to reach the National Assembly building in the center of the capital, Caracas. Chavista loyalists, meanwhile, gathered outside the presidential palace a few blocks away in the name of protecting the revolution from what President Maduro called the "bourgeois parliament" on Monday.

The session inside the parliament building completed its formal business — focused on swearing in the new legislators — without any major hitches. Any pretense of solemnity, however, was quickly dispensed with as speeches were intermittently interrupted by chants from both sides emanating from both the public gallery and the deputies.

These included chants of "assassins" when the new rulers of the Assembly stressed their determination to pass an amnesty law for jailed opposition leaders. The most famous of these is Leopoldo López who was imprisoned nearly two years ago and accused of being the intellectual author of riots that led to the death of 43 people in early 2014.

López's wife Lilian Tintori — who has become an opposition leader in her own right — was in the public gallery of the legislature on Tuesday holding up a handwritten sign proclaiming "Amnesty Now." Shouts of  "Amnesty" periodically filled the chamber as the opposition celebrated its new influence in Venezuela.

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Towards the end of the session, the ruling party deputies abandoned the chamber to protest what they said was an unacceptable breach of protocol after the head of the newly elected assembly president — Henry Ramos Allup — passed over formalities in designating the next speaker.

Related: Venezuelans Wonder How the Opposition Will Handle Victory and the Government Defeat

The events on Tuesday brought to the surface the tension that has been building in Venezuela ever since the a coalition of opposition parties called the Democratic Unity Roundtable trounced the ruling social party in elections on December 6.

President Maduro accepted the results on the night of the election, but since then the Chavista leadership has sought to limit the power of the incoming legislature.

This included a legal challenge to the election results in the state of Amazonas. The challenge is based on alleged vote buying and led to a supreme court ruling on December 29 temporarily suspending four of the elected deputies, three of whom belong to the opposition and one to the ruling party.

Related: Venezuela's Ruling Party Packs the Supreme Court With Judges It Likes

The ruling followed the controversial naming of 13 new supreme court justices by the outgoing congress that spent its final weeks of power pushing through measures that appeared designed to make the opposition's life more difficult.

The decision means the opposition now only has 109 seats, instead of 112. This does not immediately impact its two thirds majority — what in Venezuela is known as a super majority — because it also brings down the total number of seats in the Assembly to 163, rather than the original 167. The balance, however, could shift if the supreme court orders new elections in Amazonas state and the opposition does not do as well the second time around.

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Assembly President Ramos Allup had previously said he would defy the supreme court ruling and swear in the suspended deputies. He relented on the day itself.

"We represent an alternative, we are not going to be anti-establishment, rather an autonomous legislative power," Ramos said during the session. But though the usually hardline politician surprised some with his rather conciliatory tone, he also promised to try and force President Maduro out of office within six months "using constitutional mechanisms."

Meanwhile, although the yelling and the delicate political issues such as the imprisoned opposition leaders might grab the headlines, observers expect the country's struggling oil-dependent economy to monopolize much of the new legislature's attention in upcoming months.

Venezuela ended the year in recession with triple digit inflation and a budget for 2016 calculated on an oil price of 50 dollars a barrel when Venezuelan oil is currently valued at around 30 dollars. According to Asrúbal Oliveros, director of the company Ecoanalítica, the government will be in trouble maintaining public spending if the oil price is below 75 dollars a barrel.

President Maduro, meanwhile, has announced on Monday that he will soon reveal emergency economic measures that he expects the new legislature to accept.

The president remained silent while the new congress was being inaugurated on Tuesday although he retweeted a number of posts by staunch loyalists of the movement. One typical one stated "The people are in the street: The counter revolution will fail in the face of the mobilized people."

Related: The Year the 'Pink Tide' Turned: Latin America in 2015

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