Venezuela's reelected parliament speaker calls for protests


Caracas (AFP)

Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido called Tuesday for three days of protests against President Nicolas Maduro, just hours after he was sworn in for another term as speaker of parliament.

Guaido was barred from entering the assembly premises by the National Guard for around half an hour in dramatic and chaotic scenes.

"It's time to stand up and to stand up with force," he said later during a press conference.

"We will mobilize for street protests on Thursday and Friday, and on Saturday we will all be in the streets."

Guaido, who claims to be acting president of Venezuela, leads the opposition to leftist President Nicolas Maduro, who is blamed for an acute economic crisis and accused of acting like a dictator.

The National Assembly parliament is the only Venezuelan branch of government in opposition hands.

"Here we are, showing our face," Guaido said as he took his seat in the assembly.

He accused the rival claimant to the speaker position, Luis Parra, and others of fleeing "like the cowards they are."

Lawmakers sang the national anthem but electricity to the chamber was cut off, leaving deputies to use the flashlights on their mobile phones.

Guaido then raised his right hand and took the oath of office for another term as leader of the assembly.

Earlier, dozens of National Guard troops wearing helmets and carrying riot shields blocked Guaido from entering the building.

"These are not barracks!" Guaido shouted at troops.

Some of his allies and members of the press were also blocked from getting inside.

The opposition said on Twitter that four lawmakers were injured by "regime minions."

The press workers' union wrote on Twitter that two journalists were attacked and robbed of their equipment by armed militias linked to the government.

- Burly bodyguards -

Inside, Parra, an opposition legislator accused of corruption, was installed in the seat Guaido has occupied for the last year.

But by the time Guaido was allowed in, Parra had already left.

Parra caused a storm on Sunday when he declared himself parliament speaker after the armed forces had prevented Guaido from entering the building.

Crisis-hit Venezuela has been in political turmoil since last January when Guaido used his position as speaker to declare himself acting president in a direct challenge to the authority of Maduro.

He declared on Sunday that he was re-elected to his post after holding a legislative session alongside loyal deputies at the offices of an pro-opposition newspaper.

The United States warned on Tuesday it could ramp up sanctions against Venezuela.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Guaido on his re-election.

"The Maduro regime's campaign of arrests, intimidation and bribery could not derail Venezuelan democracy, nor could its use of military forces to physically bar the National Assembly from accessing the parliament building," said Pompeo.

Parra was kicked out of his opposition party last month after an online news site accused him of corruption linked to the over-pricing of food imported for the Maduro government.

He remains a deputy and Maduro recognized Parra's election in a television address on Sunday.

But even Maduro's left-wing allies Argentina and Uruguay have denounced the move.

- Bribed deputies -

On Monday, Guaido dismissed Parra as "an accomplice to dictatorship."

Both men claimed on Sunday they had the support of enough deputies to be elected president of the legislature.

Before Sunday's vote, Guaido said the Maduro government had bribed some opposition deputies to vote against him.

The opposition holds 112 of the 167 seats in the assembly.

Opposition deputy Henry Ramos Allup, a former parliament speaker, said a verification of the minutes would be undertaken to see "how many voted for them and us."

"To those that bought votes, keep in mind the purchase risks of what you buy," Ramos Allup said.

While Guaido has been recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries, true presidential authority rests with Maduro, who retains the support of the armed forces.

As well as two claimants to the presidency and parliament speaker, Venezuela has two parliaments.

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 then controversially set up a Constituent Assembly -- also made up exclusively of loyalists -- with power to legislate in its place.