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Venezuela Congressional Showdown Looms After Maduro Maneuver

Patricia Laya and Alex Vasquez

(Bloomberg) -- Political confrontation is intensifying in Venezuela as opposition leader Juan Guaido and the government ally who says he’s replaced him as legislative head both announced plans to open a session at the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The dueling announcements took place a day after security forces of President Nicolas Maduro barred Guaido from the assembly to prevent his re-election as leader. Guaido took his followers to an off-site session where he easily carried the vote.

Speaking to journalists at his Caracas office on Monday, Guaido said, “Tomorrow we begin the regular session in the legislative palace. We are going to do our job.”

Simultaneously, Luis Parra, a former opposition legislator now allied with Maduro, took over Guaido’s assembly office, said he had the quorum and legitimacy for the position, and was opening a new session on Tuesday. He said he would reset the legislative agenda and seek reconciliation. Guaido was welcome, he added, but only as any other legislator.

Guaido later said he might hold the session remotely if needed.

U.S. Versus Russia

In validating the irregular vote at the National Assembly, Maduro earned the scorn of most of Latin America including leftist governments like Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay which criticized the incident. The U.S., which has backed Guaido for the past year, congratulated him for being re-elected while Russia, which supports Maduro, called Parra’s election legitimate and democratic.

While the Trump administration has strongly backed Guaido, the current crisis over Iran may distract Washington from getting very involved. It has imposed severe sanctions on those doing business with the Venezuelan government. Venezuela has the world’s largest known oil reserves.

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence called Guaido and spoke with him for 10 minutes, congratulating him on his re-election and reaffirming that he’s the only legitimate president of Venezuela. A person familiar with the call said the two also agreed that this is an inflection point for freedom and democracy in the country.

Elliott Abrams, special envoy to Venezuela for the U.S. government, told reporters that the administration is looking at new and different sanctions to pressure Maduro. He also said the U.S. had underestimated Russian and Cuban support for him.

Maduro’s move on Sunday illustrates his growing confidence that, despite the country’s spiraling poverty, hunger and dysfunction, Guaido’s U.S.-backed attempt to oust him is fading.

The streets, which last year filled with citizens supporting Guaido, hasn’t rung out with support in the past couple days. They are largely empty. He is polling now in the high 30s, according to Datanalisis. He is still the most popular politician in the country, but fatigue among ordinary citizens over the daily struggle of life along with pessimism that he can oust Maduro have slowed his momentum.

Corruption Scandal

Parra, who says he’s taken over from Guaido, was once his ally but is ensnared in a corruption scandal and has been embraced by Maduro. On Monday, he spoke from the National Assembly and said that Guaido had lost the vote because he was “late.”

Parra claimed he was voted in with a quorum but declined to provide a record. Since the assembly is controlled by the pro-Guaido opposition, some of whom couldn’t get into the building on Sunday, Parra’s claim stretches credulity.

At his press conference, Guaido said, “Everything points to there being joint action with Russia.” He called on security forces to abandon Maduro and accused him of seeking to destroy all Venezuelan institutions.

Maduro controls all key institutions -- the military, the electoral council, the judiciary -- except the assembly. But he has essentially stripped the assembly of all law-making power and has been ruling as an authoritarian.

In an apparent attempt to reduce tensions and back Parra, Maduro’s government announced that it will release 14 political prisoners following negotiations with minority political parties that support Parra’s election. Among the released are photojournalist Jesus Medina and Carlos Marron, owner of a black market dollar website.

(adds Pence phone call to Guaido)

--With assistance from Fabiola Zerpa.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patricia Laya in Caracas at playa2@bloomberg.net;Alex Vasquez in Caracas Office at avasquez45@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Cancel at dcancel@bloomberg.net, Ethan Bronner

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