Venezuelan legislature launches trial against Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly voted on Tuesday to open a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro for violating democracy, but the socialist government dismissed the move as meaningless.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro kisses a crucifix as he speaks during a pro-government rally at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela October 25, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The OPEC member nation’s political standoff has worsened since last week’s suspension of an opposition push to hold a referendum to try to recall Maduro, 53.

With that avenue closed, the opposition coalition has raised the stakes, using its power base in congress to begin legal action against Hugo Chavez’s unpopular successor.

Unlike neighboring Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from the presidency in August, a trial against Maduro would be largely symbolic given the government and Supreme Court have declared congress illegitimate.

“Legally, the National Assembly does not exist,” said vice-president Aristobulo Isturiz, referring to Supreme Court rulings that measures in congress are null and void until it removes three lawmakers linked to vote-buying claims.

The opposition has accused Maduro of veering into dictatorship by sidelining the legislature, detaining opponents and leaning on compliant judicial and electoral authorities to block a plebiscite on his rule.

“We will show clearly to Venezuela and the world that in this crisis, responsibility for breaking the constitution has clearly been Nicolas Maduro’s,” said majority leader Julio Borges.

The National Assembly ordered Maduro to appear at a session next Tuesday - which he will almost certainly refuse to do - and said it would also consider charges of abandoning his duties.

Foes accuse Maduro of wrecking the country’s economy, where food shortages and soaring prices have left many skipping meals and spending hours in long lines.

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Polls showed the majority of Venezuelans wanted a referendum on Maduro which he would have likely lost, triggering a presidential election had it taken place this year. But the election board nixed the process, citing court orders after government allegations of fraud in an initial signature drive.

“In Venezuela we are battling Satan!” said another opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, ratifying plans for nationwide rallies on Wednesday that the opposition have dubbed ‘The Takeover of Venezuela’.

Noting recent shifts to the right in other Latin American countries, Venezuela’s government has said it is the victim of an international conspiracy against socialism led by the United States and fanned by servile foreign media.

It blames a two-year slump in global oil prices and a U.S.-fostered “economic war” for Venezuelans’ suffering. It has also accused political foes of seeking a violent coup against Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist who became Chavez’s long-serving foreign minister then vice-president.

Maduro came back to Venezuela later on Tuesday after a tour of oil-producing nations and meetings with the Pope and U.N. Secretary General-designate Antonio Guterres.

“In the world, they admire our battle for truth, dignity and independence,” he said at an airport ceremony, before heading for a rally where he blasted the National Assembly and accused Washington of meddling as red-shirted loyalists chanted “dissolve the National Assembly”.

“Before leaving office, (U.S. President Barack) Obama wants to damage Venezuela ... He is obsessed with destroying Venezuela by whatever means,” Maduro told the rally.

Both sides have announced a tentative dialogue for this weekend, in the presence of international mediators.

Maduro said he would attend Sunday’s talks, but various opposition figures have already said they doubt Maduro’s sincerity and fear the initiative may be a tactic to gain time.

With Venezuela’s military a key factor in past power-shifts, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino criticized congress, vowed the armed forces’ loyalty to Maduro, and accused foes of seeking foreign intervention.

Maduro has called a meeting of a special Council for the Defense of the Nation, to which he invited opposition legislative head Henry Ramos, for Wednesday morning at the Miraflores presidential palace.

Additional reporting by Diego Oré, Alexandra Ulmer, Andreina Aponte and Corina Pons; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Hay and James Dalgleish