CARACAS – The would-be new leader of Venezuela's congress dug in Monday against accusations that he facilitated a takeover of the country's last democratic institution by socialist allies of President Nicolás Maduro.
Luis Parra insisted that parliamentary rules were followed when he was elected head of the National Assembly on Sunday in a session in which security forces loyal to Maduro blocked opposition leader Juan Guaidó from attending.
Parra, a previously unknown backbencher mired in accusations of bribe-taking, said the 150 lawmakers in attendance more than satisfied the quorum requirements in the 167-seat legislature. He said 81 of those present voted for him, including 30 members of the opposition, in a stunning rebuke of Guaidó, who had expected to easily win re-election.
But in rambling comments to journalists who challenged his every assertion, Parra acknowledged he didn’t know who exactly had voted for him during the chaotic session, in which a handful of socialist lawmakers stormed the dais in a rushed show of hands. Nor could he square the apparent results with the 100 lawmakers who elected Guaidó in a roll call vote held later in the day at an emergency session at a Caracas newspaper.
“We're seeking the list,” he said, insisting the tally would be provided in the coming hours.
The rival claims to the legislature’s mantle, however bizarre, have plunged the South American nation once again into crisis, setting the stage for another battle for institutional power of the sort Venezuelans have grown used to in recent years.
While Guaidó enjoys the full support of the U.S., and even leftist governments like Argentina and Mexico condemned the government's actions, there’s no indication Maduro’s grip on power — especially the armed forces — is weakening. Nor do analysts expect mass protests like the ones that a year ago accompanied Guaidó's bold challenge to Maduro to resume anytime soon.
“Without protests or control of parliament, Guaidó has little bargaining power,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Parra, in a press conference from the floor of the legislature, tried to project an image of independence, saying he never had been nor would ever be a Chavista — as supporters of the late leader Hugo Chávez are known. But while blasting Maduro for the oil-rich nation's collapse, he also took repeated aim at Guaidó, saying he had put his own political ambitions ahead of Venezuelans’ urgent needs.
“The two extremes aren’t good for the country,” he said.
As the head of congress, he said he would focus on practical initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for Venezuelans beset by hyperinflation, power outages and widespread food and medicine shortages.
However, if Guaidó and the U.S. have their way, he may never get his chance.
Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter he spoke with Guaidó Monday, offering his support “until your #libertad is restored!”
Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela, said far from outmaneuvering Guaidó, the government took a serious gamble in sending out the military to prevent his re-election.
“This was something the regime didn’t want to do,” Abrams said in a press conference from Washington. “I don’t think they come out yesterday stronger, but weaker.”
He praised opposition lawmakers, several of who had been in hiding from prosecution and re-emerged to vote for Guaidó in what he called an “extraordinary”’ demonstration of “courage and unity.”
He said he was hopeful that Maduro's few remaining allies like Russia and Cuba would re-evaluate their support for the socialist.
But in a statement, Russia's foreign ministry said Parra's election was the result of a “legitimate democratic procedure."
A year ago, Guaidó asserted at a street demonstration that his position as legislative leader made him Venezuela's interim president in place of the “usurper” Maduro, whose 2018 reelection has been rejected by the U.S., European Union and several Latin American governments. Key opposition figures were barred from running in that election.
The weeks leading up to Sunday's vote were marked by tension, with the opposition alleging a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaidó.
Amid the confusion, evidence surfaced showing how Parra allegedly coordinated the work of a group of opposition lawmakers who, in exchange for payments, allegedly lobbied authorities in Colombia and the U.S. on behalf of businessmen tied to Maduro. For their actions, the lawmakers were all expelled from their parties last month.
Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years. Critics blame the plunge on years of failed socialist rule and corruption, while Maduro's allies say U.S. sanctions are taking a toll on the economy. The South American nation's 30 million people suffer soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.
An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivaling war-torn Syria.
Guaidó vowed to hold a session at the legislative palace Tuesday, setting up a potential showdown with the government-backed faction, which has also scheduled a congressional debate at the federal building.
“We will put our physical safety at risk again tomorrow,” Guaidó said at a press conference. “Venezuela is worth it.”
Goodman reported from Miami.