CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuela today inaugurated a new legislative superbody that is expected to rewrite the constitution and give vast new powers to the ruling Socialist Party, defying worldwide condemnation that the new assembly undermines democratic freedoms.
President Nicolas Maduro says the 545-member assembly, which was elected on Sunday in a vote boycotted by the opposition, will bring peace to a nation beset by violent protests and a profound economic crisis.
The assembly unanimously elected well-known Socialist Party leaders to its leadership, with former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez to serve as the president, and former Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz as First Vice President.
“This national constituent assembly, convened by President Nicolas Maduro, is hereby formally inaugurated,” said Rodriguez, dressed in a bright red pantsuit.
Her first speech to the body was a homage to late president Hugo Chavez who she referred to as “our eternal commander.”
The assembly will function in the same downtown Caracas palace complex as the existing opposition-run congress, which could potentially be dissolved by the new all-powerful body.
The two bodies are expected to hold sessions in parallel, separated by an ornate cobblestone courtyard.
Governments ranging from Latin American neighbors to the United States and European Union have condemned the vote, with the Vatican making a last minute plea for authorities to suspend it.
Socialist Party officials converged on congress in a festive march in which they carried portraits of independence hero Simon Bolivar and Chavez, whose image was removed by the opposition legislators when they took over in January 2016.
“The constituent assembly is love, peace and loyalty,” said Raquel Rodriguez, a 57-year-old government worker who joined the march. “A lot of people have not been loyal to this (movement), but everyone here has.”
The delegates to the assembly sang the national anthem, led by a recording of the voice of the late Chavez.
The assembly’s election on Sunday prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to label Maduro a dictator, a term the opposition has long used to describe the unpopular leader.
Brazil today recommended that Venezuela be suspended from trade bloc Mercosur until it returns to democracy.