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Opposition Parties Prepare Bid To Challenge Venezuela's President


In Venezuela, the increasingly authoritarian government of President Nicolas Maduro has thrown its opposition in disarray. It's effectively stripped the elected parliament of power. It's ordered five opposition mayors to leave their posts and be placed under arrest, and it's fired the nation's attorney general, who now says she fears for her life.

NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now from Venezuela's capital, Caracas. And Philip, just what is the mood on the streets there now?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, I've been driving around Caracas, and the first impression actually that you get - just first impression is that it's remarkably normal, especially when you compare it with a short while ago when there were an awful lot of National Guard troops and police with riot gear out on the streets during the time that the protests were really at the height. Today, the buses are running, it seems, and there's a lot of traffic, and people are walking around. There are long lines, as usual, of people outside stores waiting to buy basics like flour and sugar at government-controlled prices.

But stop and talk to people, and it becomes pretty clear that they're very tense - they're tired - that the mood is volatile. And they're very worried about what's going to happen next here and whether it'll be even worse than what they've seen in the last four months. They're also, some of them, very closely following every step of Maduro's rapid move to consolidate his power.

CORNISH: You talk about that rapid move. Walk us through what he's been doing in the last just few days.

REEVES: Well, this really gained momentum at the end of last week when the new constituent assembly that Maduro has created got down to work. Remember that that body is regarded as illegitimate by the United States and many, many other countries, especially in this region, who don't recognize the constituent assembly.

Anyway, it's passed a decree making itself the most powerful legislature in Venezuela, supplanting the elected Congress which the opposition control. And it's also voted to fire Venezuela's chief prosecutor, a woman called Louisa Ortega. She had been calling Maduro and his government to account over violations of the constitution and other offenses. And when she was fired, she was locked out of her building. She said she didn't accept the decision as legitimate, but she disappeared on the back of a motorbike.

Now, Reuters News Agency says that they have spoken to her in hiding. She reportedly says that she fears for her life, that she's on the run, that she's moving between safe houses once a day. She's not formally been charged, although the supreme court has said it wants to put her on trial. But she fears anyway being arrested arbitrarily and flung in jail.

CORNISH: Now, the supreme body the Constituent Assembly is establishing something called a truth commission. Help us understand what's going on there.

REEVES: Yeah, that might sound a little like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up in South Africa after apartheid in the mid-'90s - purpose of that body of course was to try to heal the wounds by offering people the chance to confess to crimes in return for amnesty. But this body in Venezuela doesn't look much like that. We're trying to figure out exactly what it is.

But it looks as if it will be used to prosecute and punish those who the government decides are responsible for what it calls political violence committed during the last four months of unrest. Opposition activists believe that means them. They believe it means it's them and not the Venezuelan security forces who are responsible for many of the 125-or-so killings that have occurred here in the last four months.

CORNISH: Do Venezuelans who oppose Maduro at this point believe they can do anything to stop him from essentially creating a dictatorship?

REEVES: You know, I think people here really do not know what to do and what's going to happen next, and they're profoundly worried about the situation.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Caracas. Thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.