Venezuela’s New Leaders Share a Goal: Stifle the Opposition

The president’s son. The president’s wife. A radical television-show host who appears in a red military beret and broadcasts embarrassing recordings of opposition politicians secretly taped by Venezuelan intelligence agents.

All are among Venezuela’s newest leaders, and the government says they will take their seats on Friday.

A 545-member body, known as the constituent assembly, has been created to rewrite the nation’s Constitution and govern Venezuela with virtually unlimited authority until they finish their work.

It is the culmination of an ambitious plan by the government to consolidate power. In a contentious election on Sunday, President Nicolás Maduro instructed Venezuelans to choose delegates from a list of trusted allies of the governing party. Voters were not given the option of rejecting the plan.

The assembly includes representatives for Venezuelans from all walks of life — fishermen, farmers, students, oil workers — as well as hundreds of local delegates from every municipality, large and small. Many are neophytes who have never held political office before.

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But if there is one thing that seems to unite them, it is a will to stifle political dissent.

“There is no possibility that the opposition will govern this country,” Diosdado Cabello, a former military chief who is one of the group’s most powerful members, said Wednesday night on state television.

Mr. Cabello looked into the camera and then added, “Mark my words — no possibility.”

Many details on how the assembly will function still remain unclear, and by Thursday the government still had not announced the names of many of its members. But experts expected it to be lead by an assembly president, and representatives could be divided into committees to write the Constitution.

At least 20 countries have objected to the assembly, which has the power to dismiss any official deemed disloyal or even disband the opposition-controlled national legislature. A software company that helped set up the vote said that the turnout figures announced by the government had been manipulated and inflated by at least a million votes. And large segments of Venezuela have taken to the streets for months to protest against the government, leading to the deaths of at least 120 people.

But the government is intent on moving ahead with the assembly, with some of its members promising to bring order to the country.

“The priority is, first, to establish peace, and if someone breaks the law, then this person should go to jail,” said David Paravisini, an assembly member representing retired people. “The assembly is going to have its ways of taking on these things.”

The assembly members have expressed differing opinions on how to handle the opposition. Mr. Paravisini and many others argue that rivals of the governing party can simply be sidelined as the assembly charges ahead with rewriting the nation’s governing charter.

Others, like Iris Varela, a former prison minister under Mr. Maduro, advocated a more aggressive approach.

“You will be a prisoner, Mrs. Luisa Ortega,” she said in comments directed toward the country’s attorney general, who said Mr. Maduro violated the Constitution by holding what she called an illegal vote.

The more aggressive approach seemed to be gaining strength this week. The Supreme Court issued a 15-month prison sentence to Carlos García Odón, an opposition mayor in the western city of Mérida. That decision followed dramatic scenes on Tuesday of two prominent opposition politicians being dragged from their homes by intelligence agents in the middle of the night, one in his pajamas.

Fears also continued that the assembly will simply dismantle the National Assembly, the country’s opposition-controlled legislature.

The new body represents a wide panorama of the country’s governing party, a vast political tent raised in the 1990s by former President Hugo Chávez to advance a socialist-inspired transformation of the country.

It includes Delcy Rodríguez, a former foreign minister close to Mr. Maduro. Members of Mr. Maduro’s family will serve on the assembly, including his son, Nicolás, and wife, Cilia Flores, a powerful leftist in her own right who once headed the legislature and whose nephews were recently convicted of drug trafficking in the United States.

Mario Silva, the television host known nationwide for his show La Hojilla, or the leaflet in Spanish, describes himself on his Twitter page as a “revolutionary, Bolivarian, Marxist, defender of the legacy of Chávez.” He is seen on Tuesday nights on state television, where he berates the opposition, at times broadcasting recordings that are thought to be provided to him by state security agencies.

Mr. Silva is not shy about his disdain for the opposition. Asked by an interviewer what the new assembly would do, he said: “Beat the crap out of those dogs and start to put them all in jail,” using expletives in Spanish that were far more crude.

However, analysts say the assembly could also create challenges for Mr. Maduro himself, particularly in his long power struggle against Mr. Cabello, the former military chief.

Mr. Cabello, who assisted Mr. Chávez in a failed government overthrow in 1992, was passed over for the presidency by Mr. Chávez shortly before his death in 2013. He has remained a rival to Mr. Maduro since.

Mr. Cabello is now one of the assembly’s most powerful members. David Smilde, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, said that if Mr. Cabello was chosen to lead the assembly, it could both weaken the president and usher in new levels of militarism into Venezuelan’s government.

“He is the most committed to the continuation of the regime at all cost,” Mr. Smilde said.

He also warned that the assembly was composed of many unknown activists with no legal background who would soon be rewriting the country’s most important document.

“A lot of them have very little understanding of what a Constitution is,” he said.

Other analysts said they expected that many in the body would simply take directions from more powerful members.

“Some there will just be a rubber stamp,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst and risk consultant in Caracas. He said he expected less room for dialogue and discussion than there had been the last time Venezuela’s Constitution was rewritten in 1999, given the current government’s weakened legitimacy.

But interviews with assembly members showed signs that at least some on the new body wished to choose a different economic path than the ones taken by Mr. Maduro and Mr. Chávez.

Sinecio Mujica, a farmer who leads a cooperative in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, said that as an assembly member, he would pursue measures to reduce Venezuela’s dependence on oil for nearly all the government’s revenue.

The use of oil money, championed by Mr. Chávez, expanded education and health care in the country when oil prices were high. But it also led to the country’s use of oil dollars to import agricultural products that it stopped producing, setting the stage for the current food crisis.

“It’s not sustainable for us to produce corn meal when we have to import the corn,” Mr. Mujica said. “We have failed on the economic side.”

Assembly members closer to the center of power were more vague this week, making it difficult to guess what will come next for Venezuela.

“With all of the love we feel, all of the emotions we have for the great participation in this great election,” Ms. Flores said at her certification ceremony this week, “we tell you, just as our commander Hugo Chávez did, ‘Love is paid back with love.’ ”

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