Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s opposition denounced a “parliamentary coup” on Sunday after its leader Juan Guaido was prevented from entering the National Assembly by police and a rival tried to take his role as speaker.
Images of Luis Parra declaring himself head of the chamber by megaphone were shown on state television channel VTV, as Guaido and fellow opposition lawmakers were blocked from entering the assembly.
Guaido had been expected to be re-elected parliament speaker in a vote on Sunday but only regime lawmakers and opposition deputies critical of Guaido were allowed to enter the building.
“ALERT! Parliamentary coup. Without votes, nor a quorum PSUV (socialist party) deputies are trying to swear in a false leadership,” said the National Assembly on its Twitter account.
It published a video appearing to show Guaido, wearing a blue suit, attempting to climb over the fence around the premises to gain entry to its compound, only to be pushed back by police with riot shields.
Guaido had earlier hit out at President Nicolas Maduro’s regime for preventing numerous deputies and journalists from entering the assembly — the only government branch in opposition hands — as police carried out a security operation.
“Today, those who help to prevent the legitimate installation of the Venezuelan parliament are converting themselves into accomplices of the dictatorship and of those oppressing the Venezuelan people,” Guaido wrote on Twitter.
Guaido has led the National Assembly for the last year.
“This is unprecedented!” Guaido told a member of the security forces with whom he had a heated exchange. “What operation? Who ordered it?”
The national press workers union launched a “worldwide alert in the face of the Nicolas Maduro regime initiative to block the press” from reaching parliament.
Colombia’s foreign office described Sunday’s vote as “fraudulent, without transparency or guarantees” and said it wouldn’t recognize it.
US senator for Florida Marco Rubio called it a “sham,” while US State Department official Michael Kozak described it as “a farce.”
– ‘You are the past’ –
Ahead of Parra’s self-proclamation, opposition deputy Jose Brito, an opponent of Guaido’s, told journalists that Parra would stand against the current speaker.
“You could have been the future — now you are and will be the past,” Brito told journalists, addressing Guaido.
Both Parra and Brito fell out with Guaido last year after being accused of corruption related to the over-pricing of imported food.
In comments posted on the National Assembly Twitter account, Guaido said those deputies prevented from entering would be heading to the premises of the El Nacional newspaper to discuss their “next steps.”
He also hit out at “traitors” and said several lawmakers were “brutally beaten” by police.
Parra told reporters 140 lawmakers were present in the session and that his candidacy was approved with 81 votes.
A regime deputy, Pedro Carreno, told AFP that the vote took place with 150 deputies present and that Parra received the simple majority of 84 needed to win.
The National Assembly has 167 seats, 112 of which are in opposition hands, but as well as those prevented from entering, around 30 others are either in exile or holed up in diplomatic missions following a crack down by the regime against Maduro opponents last year.
On Twitter, the National Assembly descried the day’s events as “a violation of the constitution.”
Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo said his country “does not recognize” Parra’s claims.
– Maduro expects –
Guaido sprang to prominence a year ago when he declared himself acting president — a move quickly supported by more than 50 countries — in a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority during a crippling economic crisis.
Parliament had branded Maduro a “usurper” over his controversial 2018 re-election in a poll widely denounced as fraudulent.
The National Assembly has been effectively sidelined since 2017, when the Supreme Court, made up of Maduro loyalists, declared it in contempt. The court has since annulled its every decision.
Maduro has said he expects to “regain the National Assembly” in elections later this year.
Guaido’s challenge to Maduro started brightly in 2019 as he showed ingenuity and skill in rallying supporters to protest and defying Maduro’s authority in a number of ways — including flouting a travel ban.
But his momentum petered out over the second half of 2019.
Despite intense pressure from the United States, which has imposed sanctions on regime figures, Maduro has retained power thanks largely to support from the armed forces.
Even a severe economic crisis that has led to shortages of food and medicines, and an inflation rate the IMF said would hit a stunning 200,000 percent for 2019, hasn’t dislodged Maduro remains steadfast.