With Guaido blocked from parliament, rival named as new leader in Venezuela
Luis Parra has improvised swearing-in after what opposition calls a coup by Maduro
Venezuela's parliament on Sunday swore in legislator Luis Parra as its new leader after government security forces blocked opposition leader Juan Guaido from entering parliament, in what Guaido's allies called a "parliamentary coup."
Opposition leaders had expected to re-elect Guaido, recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's legitimate leader, to a second term as chief of the legislature to continue pushing for the ouster of unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
Following a confused scuffle on the floor of parliament on Sunday, state television announced that the new parliament leader was Parra — a legislator expelled last month from an opposition party following corruption accusations that he denies.
"Luis Parra ... has been sworn in during this session today," said a state television announcer, following an improvised swearing-in ceremony amid what appeared to be protests by opposition legislators.
Opposition leaders said the incident showed that Maduro has again flouted basic democratic principles by using intimidation and force to control an institution that his Socialist Party lost control of in a landslide 2015 election.
One video distributed by Guaido's press team shows him attempting to scale a fence outside parliament and being pushed back by security forces. He declared the new congress illegal and said he will continue holding sessions elsewhere.
WATCH: Venezuelan troops block lawmakers from entering the National Assembly
But the gambit will help Maduro to sideline Guaido, who last year became an icon of hope for millions of Venezuelans seeking an end to the country's hyperinflationary crisis.
Guaido's claim to the interim presidency rested on his position as president of the opposition-held National Assembly. He argued that Maduro's 2018 re-election was fraudulent, meaning the presidency was vacant and that the constitution dictated the head of parliament should take charge temporarily.
The United States, through its embassy to Venezuela which has been located in Bogota since the two countries cut off diplomatic relations in 2019, said Sunday's events in the National Assembly were "completely against the will of the people and the laws governing the process."
Since being expelled from the Justice First opposition party, Parra has been harshly critical of Guaido's leadership. He and eight other legislators who were also ensnared in the corruption scandal have described themselves as being in "rebellion."
Parra told state television that the lawmakers who were present in the chamber opened the session without Guaido because he had not arrived.
"We announced this morning before entering the legislative palace that the rebellion of the deputies ... would be clearly expressed," Parra said.
Guaido in December vowed to investigate alleged wrongdoing lawmakers, including Parra, for unduly advocating for a businessman linked to Maduro's government.
The Lima Group — of which Canada and Venezuela are members — said in a statement it did not recgonize the results and condemned the use of force by Maduro preventing opposition lawmakers from entering parliament.
"The National Assembly has the constitutional right to meet without intimidation ... in order to elect its president and governing board," the group said.
Vote marked with tension
The weeks leading up to Sunday's vote were marked by tension, with the opposition denouncing a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaido — an outcome that would've embarrassed the 36-year-old lawmaker who has been recognized as Venezuela's rightful leader by more than 50 nations.
The harassment continued up until the last minute. In a dramatic standoff, police officers wearing riot helmets and flanked by metal barricades initially blocked several lawmakers from reaching the neo-classical legislature in downtown Caracas earlier on Sunday.
Amid bouts of shoving and political sloganeering, security forces demanded that each lawmaker present their credentials, arguing they were under orders to deny entry to several lawmakers banned from carrying out their duties by the loyalist supreme court.
"Is your family in Venezuela?" Guaido asked the young police officers, who stood firmly in nervous silence.
"Today you're complicit with the dictatorship, you're complicit with those who are responsible for the hunger inside Venezuela," he added.
Minority parties splinter
Support for Guaido inside the opposition has taken a hit after several minority parties in November splintered off to create a separate bloc to negotiate directly with Maduro — an approach that Guaido has refused, arguing that talks are simply a time-buying exercise aimed at keeping Maduro in power.
Reflecting those divisions, a small group of opposition lawmakers had proposed an alternative slate to take over leadership responsibilities from Guaido. They argued that, even in the face of defeat, Guaido has stubbornly stuck to his plan of removing Maduro, putting his political ambitions above the needs of Venezuelans who have largely tuned out from the political fight while enduring an economy in shambles under stiff U.S. sanctions.
Guaido declared presidential powers over Venezuela in January last year, saying Maduro's re-election was illegitimate because the most popular opposition parties and political leaders had been disqualified from running.
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.
4.5 million Venezuelans have left country
An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivalling war-torn Syria.
Maduro, who took over after the 2013 death of former President Hugo Chavez, had called Guaido is "a puppet of the United States." Maduro said he was determined to win control of the National Assembly in elections later this year.
"Despite perversions of the imperialist United States against Venezuela during 2019, we've managed to hold onto our independence, peace and stability," Maduro tweeted. "I know that in 2020, with all of our efforts we will enjoy more economic prosperity."
Maduro maintains military backing and control over most branches of the government, despite the deepening crisis and hard-hitting financial sanctions from the United States.
Weeks ahead of the vote deciding Guaido's leadership, the opposition-dominated congress changed its rules, allowing lawmakers who have fled Venezuela for fear of persecution by Maduro's government to debate and vote from a distance. U.S. officials recently brought several key opposition leaders to Washington to discuss strategies for rallying around Guaido.
With files from CBC News