Venezuela crisis: Three key recent events

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A National Guard vehicle goes through a barricade built by anti-government activists in Venezuela's third city, Valencia, on August 6, 2016,Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Anti-government protesters took to the streets of Valencia on Sunday

Venezuela has been in crisis for months, with almost daily anti-government protests sweeping through the country. But events have been moving even faster since a controversial constituent assembly was sworn in on 4 August. Here, we take a look back at what has happened since and what it may mean.

1. Attack on military base

On Sunday at 03:50 local time (07:50GMT), a group of 20 people in military uniforms attacked Fort Paramacay military base in the city of Valencia, in Carabobo state.

They stole weapons and recorded a video of themselves.

Media caption,

Army officers posted a video calling their move "a legitimate rebellion"

In it, a man who identifies himself as Captain Juan Caguaripano says that their action is "not a coup d'etat". "This is a civic and military action to re-establish constitutional order," he says. "But more than that, it is to save the country from total destruction."

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said that for three hours there was fighting within the military base and that two of the attackers were killed and one injured.

Information Minister Ernesto Villegas tweeted a picture of seven men whom he said had been arrested. The 10 remaining attackers escaped and are being sought by the security forces.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino called it "a terrorist paramilitary-type attack", which according to him was "immediately repelled".

He also said that those who carried out the attack were "civilian delinquents, dressed in military garb" and a lieutenant who had deserted months earlier.

According to Gen Padrino, those detained confessed to having been "hired by activists from the extreme right with foreign connections".

What does it mean?

To the government and its supporters, this attack will be seen as proof that "the black hand of imperialism", as foreign minister Jorge Arreaza described it in a tweet, is trying to overthrow the government.

President Maduro regularly blames foreign powers in general, and the US and neighbouring Colombia in particular, for everything from Venezuela's dire economic situation to the shortages of staple goods.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
To President Maduro this attack is proof that there are people trying to topple him

Mr Arreaza also linked "the terrorist actions of the right" to what he said were attempts to isolate Venezuela internationally. Venezuela has come under intense international pressure in recent weeks for going ahead with a controversial constituent assembly.

Linking this attack to foreign powers will boost President Maduro's power to dismiss international criticism as meddling.

For the opposition, news of the attack was a sign that there is internal dissent within the armed forces.

Leading opposition leaders have repeatedly called on the armed forces to join the protests against President Maduro but the army's top brass has so far staunchly defended the government.

Seeing a video of uniformed men speaking of a "legitimate rebellion" raised the opposition's hopes that members of the rank and file were ready to switch sides.

There were also rumours of the "rebellion" spreading to other army bases but there has so far been no independent confirmation of that.

Among Venezuelans in general, who have lived through a number of attempted and successful military coups, news of the attack caused confusion and worry.

While the "quick response" of the military was praised by President Maduro, 10 of the attackers remain on the run after raiding the arms depot.

People claiming to have links to Captain Caguaripano took to social media to say that the operation had been a success and that a large amount of weapons had been taken and that the support of other military units had been secured.

2. Sacking of the chief prosecutor

Venezuela's chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega was sacked on Saturday. It was one of the first decisions taken by the constituent assembly, sworn in the day before.

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There were scuffles as Luisa Ortega was blocked from her office

Ms Ortega has been a thorn in the side of the government since the end of March, when she openly criticised the Supreme Court for its ruling stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

She has also denounced the constituent assembly as unconstitutional and publicly contradicted versions given by government officials about how protester Juan Pablo Pernalete was killed.

What does it mean?

The fact that the decision to remove her from office was unanimous suggests that the members of the constituent assembly are closely aligned with the government.

It also suggests that the new assembly sees its duties as much more far reaching than just rewriting the constitution.

Allies of President Maduro had said in the days before that Ms Ortega would not be in her post much longer.

Opposition leaders fear that the fact that the constituent assembly acted so quickly to sack Ms Ortega means they will also vote in favour of other measures government officials have threatened, such as lifting legislators' immunity from prosecution.

Ms Ortega, however, has refused to recognise the decision by the constituent assembly, which she says is illegal, and insists she continues to be Venezuela's chief prosecutor.

There is likely to be a stand-off between Ms Ortega and the newly-named chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab.

Meanwhile, influential politicians allied with the government have called for her to stand trial and the Supreme Court is currently weighing up whether there are grounds to charge her for allegedly "violating public ethics".

3. Constituent assembly to meet for two years

When the constituent assembly first met on Saturday, the influential deputy leader of the governing socialist party, Diosdado Cabello, suggested it should meet for two years rather than six months as originally planned.

Image source, AFP
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Diosdado Cabello suggested the length of time the assembly meets be quadrupled

To rapturous applause, his proposal to modify the rules extending the period that the assembly will meet was accepted.

What does it mean?

The constituent assembly has more powers than any other body in Venezuela.

While a constituent assembly is normally created to rewrite an existing constitution or draft a new one, this assembly has already shown that it sees its powers as being much wider, such as sacking the chief prosecutor.

The constituent assembly and its president, Delcy Rodriguez, will therefore play a key role in Venezuelan politics.

It is already meeting in the legislative palace and critics fear it wants to replace the existing legislative branch, which also meets in the same building.

As the opposition did not field any candidates, the constituent assembly is dominated by government loyalists who showed their allegiance by waving pictures of former President Hugo Chávez at their inauguration.

While international leaders have said that they will not recognise the new assembly, its president does not seem bothered by the criticism from abroad, swearing to "defend the homeland from the imperial aggression and the fascist right wing".