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EL HATILLO, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition lawmakers are expected in the coming days to make their third attempt to get inside the legislative chamber in downtown Caracas, after twice this month being blocked by forces loyal to President Nicolás Maduro.
The losing turf battle recently drove the lawmakers to a covered amphitheater in El Hatillo, a normally quiet community in the hilly outskirts of the capital that's popular for its souvenir shops, restaurants and visitors strolling around the colonial square.
It’s unclear whether the National Assembly led by U.S.-backed Juan Guaidó will be forced on Tuesday to retreat again to El Hatillo, or perhaps the office of The Nation newspaper — where they also met in early January — or scramble for yet another safe meeting place.
Residents of the anti-Maduro stronghold of El Hatillo like retiree Hernan Martínez, 79, say Maduro's recent attack on National Assembly members is an assault on Venezuela's only democratically elected institution not in the socialist government's grasp.
“They were elected by the people,” said Martínez, accusing the government of sending armed motorcycle groups called “colectivos” to intimidate the lawmakers. “We don’t have guns like they do. We have the voice of the people, and nothing more.”
Pressure has been increasing on the National Assembly at the start of an election year in which Maduro has said he plans to gain control of the legislature. He blames the lawmakers for stirring violent protests and encouraging U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.
On Jan. 5, Guaidó was blocked by security forces loyal to Maduro after he tried to enter by jumping a fence. A more violent clash erupted Wednesday when a caravan of lawmakers in SUVs — absent Guaidó — failed to enter when civilians attacked their vehicles amid the sound of gunfire. They instead met in El Hatillo.
Eric Farnsworth, Washington D.C.-based vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas think tank, said Maduro is clearly trying to rattle the opposition by forcing them to hunt for a meeting place and fear for their personal safety.
He called Maduro's latest tactic an “outrage” in the eyes of the international community.
“It’s about complicating the lives of the opposition," Farnsworth said. "The more Maduro can keep them on the back of their feet, the more space he has to implement his own policy preferences.”
Venezuela's opposition overcame historic divides in early 2019 to mount its first viable challenge in years to Venezuela's socialist rule, now headed by Maduro, when it named Guaidó as head of the National Assembly.
Guaidó, 36, quickly gained the backing from the United States and nearly 60 nations who consider Maduro's election in 2018 illegitimate because it was fraught with irregularities.
Jose Miguel Angel, who manages a pizzeria in El Hatillo, said he welcomed the National Assembly to the community where he was born and works every day.
Angel, 35, said there's little chance of violence within the community, which is overwhelmingly opposed to Maduro. Any disturbances would come from armed motorcycle groups loyal to Maduro.
He said the theater where the National Assembly met normally spills music from concerts and dance shows into the rest of the community. It's a block over from his pizzeria and other tourist-oriented businesses his family has run for generations.
Angel said members of the opposition-led National Assembly — if they return — will bring their debates set on recovering his crisis-stricken nation.
“I'm still hoping we can find the balance and unity that we’ve lost in this country,” he said. “We’re well aware that we have to save our country the best way we can — and it's now or never.”
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