(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s newly convened and widely reviled assembly that will rewrite the constitution selected as its leader Delcy Rodriguez, a former foreign minister and fiery ally of President Nicolas Maduro.
Defying calls from Pope Francis and countries around the world as well as the threat of expanded U.S. sanctions, the body met for the first time in a hall across a courtyard from the Caracas building used by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. While fears of violent clashes had emerged in the days leading up to the initial meeting, the event was largely peaceful even as the opposition planned to march in protest.
“I swear to defend the homeland from the imperial aggression and the fascist right wing that has spread its hate and intolerance against the country,” Rodriguez said as she accepted the post in a ceremony broadcast on state television. As foreign minister, she was a staunch critic of regional efforts to solve the country’s crisis, making her name with angry rants against the U.S. and the Organization of American States.
With Venezuela’s economy in tatters and its society torn apart, Maduro has promised the so-called constituyente would bring about “justice and peace,” but the socialist autocrat has been vague about his exact agenda. The body includes some of the president’s closest confidants -- cabinet members, congressmen, even the first lady, Cilia Flores -- but most delegates are virtually unknown socialist party stalwarts that include farmers, pensioners and fishermen.
On Friday, streets surrounding the Palacio Federal were blocked off with metal fences and soldiers. At the Plaza Bolivar, normally dominated by an equestrian statue, large screens broadcast the proceedings. Crowds of Maduro supporters pushed toward the palace and the constituyente, chanting “the assembly is the people.”
“We are a sovereign people,” said Vladimir Oropeza, 43. The assembly “will improve things. It will address our economic problems and give us back the oil markets that have been taken from us."
Rodriguez said the assembly would begin its work in earnest Saturday. The body supersedes the country’s other democratic institutions, and critics say it is meant to cement Maduro’s regime.
Under Maduro, Rodriguez, 48, has served as information minister and foreign minister, and has been an influential politician since the late Hugo Chavez rose to power almost two decades ago. She participated in Vatican-brokered dialogues among Venezuela’s warring political factions that fell apart at the end of last year. Last month, she helped negotiate the transfer of Venezuela’s most high-profile political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, from military prison to house arrest. He was imprisoned again earlier this week.
“Maduro picked someone who is despised, but still has access to the opposition,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.
The election for the assembly Rodriguez will head occurred amid months of anti-government protests that have left more than 110 dead. The vote was derided by the opposition as fraudulent after the government said more than 8 million people participated in the process to select the 545 delegates. Private exit polling put actual turnout at less than half that, while even the company that provides voting machines and software for the country’s elections said the government overstated results by at least 1 million votes.
On Monday, the Trump administration sanctioned Maduro and froze any assets he might have under U.S. jurisdiction. It’s promised that it’s considering other options -- including possible broader sanctions on the country’s oil industry -- should Maduro continue to undermine democracy in the country.