Pro-Maduro assembly extends rule as Caracas rally marks disputed poll win

Andrea TOSTA, Alexander MARTINEZ
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a rally in front of Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on May 20, 2019. Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro rallied hundreds of his supporters in Caracas on Monday to mark the anniversary of his controversial re-election in May 2018 polls widely denounced as rigged. (AFP Photo/MARVIN RECINOS)

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, made up entirely of loyalists of President Nicolas Maduro, announced Monday it has extended its mandate to rule the crisis-stricken country for another 18 months until the end of 2020.

The move comes a year after the contested re-election of embattled Maduro, locked in a struggle for power with Juan Guaido, who has declared himself interim president and is backed by more than 50 countries including the United States.

In a decree approved unanimously and which applies immediately, the Constituent Assembly extended its functioning "at least until December 31, 2020."

The pro-Maduro body has effectively sidelined and replaced Venezuela's opposition-dominated National Assembly, which is led by Guaido.

It was originally set up by Maduro to write a new constitution, and gave itself absolute power following its creation in August 2017. It has never presented any project related to the constitution.

Its creation -- initially intended to last only two years -- came after months of anti-Maduro protests that left 125 people dead.

Maduro has presided over the collapse of the oil-rich country's economy, leading to shortages of basic food and medicine, and causing millions of Venezuelans to flee.

The "Constituent Assembly is the greatest guarantee of political stability," Maduro said later Monday, as he rallied thousands of supporters in Caracas to mark the anniversary of his controversial May 2018 re-election following polls widely denounced as rigged.

Maduro also reiterated his proposal to bring forward National Assembly elections, currently due for December 2020, telling the crowd: "I want elections now!"

Supporters carrying "March for Victory" banners took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital, many waving flags of the ruling Socialist party and wearing red T-shirts as they marched to Miraflores presidential palace.

Some carried banners saying "Trump, end the blockade on Venezuela" -- a reference to a raft of crippling US sanctions on Maduro's regime.

"We celebrate the first anniversary of the popular victory of May 20, the day in which Venezuela decided in favor of peace, democracy and freedom," Maduro wrote on Twitter.

The rally took place exactly one year after Maduro was re-elected with 68 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by the opposition.

"It's been a battle, a war. They haven't let him govern," said Maduro supporter Hector Aular, 62, describing the first year of the new government as "hard."

- ' Very positive' -

Maduro was sworn in for a second six-year term in January, shortly before Guaido, claiming constitutional legitimacy as the National Assembly speaker, declared himself acting president.

Guaido quickly won recognition from more than 50 countries, but has failed to topple Maduro, who is backed by Venezuela creditors China and Russia and retains the support of the powerful military.

He tried to incite an uprising against Maduro on April 30 but only around 30 members of the armed forces joined him, and the revolt quickly petered out.

Since then, the Maduro regime has ramped up pressure on Guaido's allies and supporters.

The Constituent Assembly recently stripped 14 opposition lawmakers of their legislative immunity over their support for the failed uprising.

Guaido on Monday tweeted: "We reiterate that with peaceful mobilization, international pressure and the growing support of our (armed forces), we will achieve the end of the usurpation... and free elections."

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido's representative in Washington, met with officials from the State Department and the Pentagon on Monday. The meeting was "very positive," he said on Twitter.