Venezuela’s congress opens political trial against Maduro

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress has opened a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro for breaking the constitutional order, deepening a standoff triggered by the authorities’ suspension of a recall referendum against the embattled socialist leader.

The move, in a special legislative session Tuesday, had been expected ever since opposition leaders declared themselves in open rebellion and called for mass street demonstrations to force Maduro from office. But it’s unlikely to have any legal effect as Maduro still controls other branches of government, including the Supreme Court, which has already declared the National Assembly illegitimate.

In Tuesday’s vote, in which the opposition argued Maduro had stopped doing his job and effectively abandoned the presidency, several lawmakers also questioned whether he was a dual Colombian national and therefore constitutionally ineligible to hold Venezuela’s highest office. It’s an old, unproven claim widely seen as a stretch but one that analysts say is a natural reaction to the government’s own trampling of the constitution in scrapping the recall that offered the best hope of peacefully resolving Venezuela’s political and economic crisis.

“If Maduro has dual nationality, he has no constitutional right to govern Venezuela,” said Juan Miguel Matheus, an opposition lawmaker. “He’ll go down as one of the biggest liars in history and the constitutional mechanisms to remove him from power and call new elections should be activated.’’

Unlike other countries in Latin America such as Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency in August, Venezuela’s National Assembly can’t impeach the president. That decision lies squarely with the government-stacked Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro and has invalidated all legislation emerging from National Assembly until it remove three lawmakers linked to vote-buying claims.

Maduro, speaking at a rally Tuesday, accused opposition lawmakers of behaving as if in a “circus” and trying to carry out a “parliamentary coup.”

“Congress is useless for our people’s interests,” he told thousands of mostly state workers outside the presidential palace. “It has a single goal: to damage Venezuela.”

He also lashed out at President Barack Obama.

“Obama is going and before he leaves he wants to cause Venezuela damage,’’ he said. “This is Obama swiping his tail before he leaves.”

Even as tempers flared, with Maduro’s opponents gearing up for a mass demonstration Wednesday, promoters are calling the “Taking of Venezuela,” the government and opposition have agreed to embark on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis.

The talks, being sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments, are set to begin Oct. 30 in the Caribbean island of Margarita.

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