Venezuela's Constituent Assembly helping Maduro disassemble opposition

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela's controversial Constituent Assembly marks its first anniversary on Saturday as the embodiment of President Nicolas Maduro's entrenchment in power despite an economic crisis that has crippled the country's public services and destroyed its currency.

The assembly's very creation last year was largely responsible for four months of street protests that left some 125 people dead.

Opposition politicians accused Maduro of staging a "coup" as the assembly, dominated by the president's Chavista allies, supplanted the opposition-controlled parliament, leaving it impotent.

It was the culmination of the under-pressure Maduro's belligerent fight to retain the power he was at risk of losing as recession paralyzed the country.

"The Constituent Assembly was the beginning of the crushing of democratic suffrage," political analyst Luis Salamanca told AFP.

The opposition's supermajority victory in 2015 parliamentary elections -- the first time in 16 years Chavistas had lost control of parliament -- had left Maduro vulnerable to a potential challenge but his allies acted quickly before the new legislators could take their seats, packing the Supreme Court with regime loyalists.

In early 2016, the Supreme Court prevented four opposition lawmakers from taking their National Assembly seats, subsequently eliminating the supermajority.

Bit by bit the Supreme Court chipped away at the National Assembly's powers, siding with the president every time it clashed with him.

At the same time, the numbers of political prisoners increased as Maduro critics found themselves accused of treason.

- 'Communist dictatorship' -

Maduro wasn't done there, though, and last year announced the creation of the Constituent Assembly to replace the legislative body of which he'd lost control.

Opposition lawmakers boycotted elections for the new assembly, decrying the "illegality" of the body's creation and saying it would establish a "communist dictatorship."

The Supreme Court subsequently dissolved the National Assembly and its replacement body declared itself a superagency with authority above all other government branches.

Washington called it "a setback for democracy."

"With the Constituent Assembly, peace triumphed," Maduro said as the bodies piled up and civil unrest spread, with the United States and European Union amongst those accusing him of political repression.

This year it hastily brought forward to May presidential elections slated for December, with the opposition again boycotting and Maduro winning a landslide and new six-year term.

Originally created to re-write the constitution and expected to function for two years, the Constituent Assembly's president and close Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello announced earlier this week it could extend its term for up to four years.

"It has become an organism to crush the opposition," political analyst Luis Salamanca told AFP.

- 'Above all powers' -

The assembly was quick to act, dismissing public prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who had left the ruling coalition accusing Maduro of breaching the constitution. Ortega has since fled to Colombia.

It's "an organization that's above all powers," analyst Mariano De Alba told AFP.

The National Assembly continues to operate but all its decisions are annulled by the same judicial authorities that dissolved it.

The Constituent Assembly has been implacable, calling municipal elections last year for mayors and governors, dealing more blows to the disillusioned opposition.

Even when one opposition governor maintained his seat and refused to submit to the assembly, that body called new elections where a Chavista prevailed.

Once Maduro won re-election, he made a sweeping "reconciliation" gesture, freeing 120 opposition political prisoners.

"He does what he wants in the service of the revolution," analyst Luis Vicente Leon told AFP.

The socialist revolution inaugurated by Maduro's now-deceased predecessor Hugo Chaves lives on, no matter whether the people support it or not, and no matter how deep the country sinks into political and economic crises.

Citizens suffer food and medicine shortages while public services such as water and electricity supplies and transport collapse.

The International Monetary Fund projected last week that inflation would hit a staggering one million percent this year.

Quite apart from reinforcing Maduro's iron-fisted grip on power, the Constituent Assembly gives him "an additional bargain chip" against his opponents, said De Alba.

"It's impossible to envisage a political resolution to the crisis without that body being dismantled."