Opposition lawmakers had to push aside security forces to gain entry to the chamber. Then it really got tense.
By Ana Vanessa Herrero and Julie Turkewitz / nytimes.com
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s National Assembly erupted into chaos on Tuesday as opposition lawmakers took their seats to begin the new year’s session, but only after forcing their way through a phalanx of government soldiers.
National Guardsmen in body armor initially prevented Juan Guaidó, the leader of the country’s opposition, from entering the building along with his supporters.
“Here the people rule!” the legislators cried as they pushed through the heavy wooden doors and installed Mr. Guaidó at the front of the assembly’s main hall.
When it was all over, Mr. Guaidó said he would continue to claim the country’s presidency and he called for a new round of protests, starting Thursday, designed to oust the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.
“I know that we have committed errors, like all human beings,” Mr. Guaidó said at a news conference, flanked by allied legislators. “But we all deserve a second chance, and I ask for it not for my sake, but rather to rescue Venezuela’s freedom.”
It was an exceptionally turbulent morning, even for a nation that is becoming increasingly accustomed to high-stakes political drama. And it did little to resolve Venezuela’s political tumult: The country, which is facing a worsening humanitarian crisis, has two men claiming the presidency and two men claiming the leadership of the assembly.
On Tuesday, the legislature’s first meeting of the year deteriorated into a melee in which, according to Mr. Guaidó’s press office, four opposition legislators were injured. The National Guard also launched tear gas at Mr. Guaidó and other opposition members as they made their way to the building.
With the lights of the chamber out, Mr. Guaidó stood in front of the assembly hall, taking the oath as head of the legislature, and opening the year’s legislative session.
But he fled through the basement, along with some legislators and reporters, when members of colectivos — the armed civilians that back the government and are known for violence — were allowed into the building.
It was the second time Tuesday that a self-proclaimed assembly president opened a legislative session only to flee the building.
In the early morning, Mr. Guaidó’s rival, Luis Parra, opened assembly proceedings, but left before the opposition lawmakers pushed their way in.
Later in the day, the Maduro government issued a statement saying the legislature convened by Mr. Parra was the legitimate one, and that it would create a commission to “rescue” constitutional order.
Several journalists reported being attacked by men they believed were members of the colectivos during the chaos.
The confrontation on Tuesday followed a weekend in which Venezuela’s opposition accused forces loyal to Mr. Maduro of staging a takeover of the assembly in a bid to consolidate Mr. Maduro’s grip on the country.
On Sunday, government forces prevented Mr. Guaidó and some of his allies from entering the assembly for a vote to decide who would lead the body. That left pro-government legislators free to elect Mr. Parra, one of their own, to the post.
Later that day, the opposition held their own vote, electing Mr. Guaidó, and leaving the country with two leaders of the assembly.
It was a significant blow to those seeking change in Venezuela.
In a nation increasingly controlled by Mr. Maduro, the assembly had been the last institution run by his critics. And Mr. Guaidó had been the body’s head — a position that, last year, gave him legal cover to call Mr. Maduro’s most recent election a fraud and claim for himself the interim presidency of the country.
Mr. Guaidó received international recognition from dozens of countries, and rallied many Venezuelans to his side. But a year later, his position as head of the legislature — and his claim to the presidency — appear to be increasingly tenuous.