Venezuela Moves to Stifle Dissent by ‘Any Means Necessa…

“It’s a country that has destroyed all of its institutions,” said Germán Ferrer, a former member of Mr. Maduro’s ruling party. “Any citizen who finds himself at odds with official politics now runs the risk of being attacked.”

With resistance to his government growing, Mr. Maduro and his allies have steadily chipped away at Venezuela’s democracy in recent years. They have packed the courts with loyalists, blocked opposition lawmakers from taking their seats, overturned laws that the president opposed, suspended elections and even tried, unsuccessfully, to dissolve the legislature altogether.

And for years, politicians like the two former mayors hauled away on Tuesday — Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma — have channeled opposition to the government into a political movement that won a majority of the country’s legislature less than two years ago.

But now the new constituent assembly has the power to dismantle the legislature and dismiss any official deemed disloyal. Venezuela — a bitterly divided country rattled by months of antigovernment protests that have left more than 120 dead this year — faces a future in which political opposition within the structures of government may be impossible.

The constituent assembly could effectively liquidate any official channels of dissent, leaving opponents with few options beyond protesting in the street.

“Now the opposition must ask: Do we go home, or do we go for a more radicalized approach?” said Shannon O’Neil, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies Latin America. “It could be a more violent response.”

Even the Socialist-inspired movement founded by Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has been shaken.

Gabriela Ramírez, a former top human rights official under both Mr. Chávez and Mr. Maduro, said the constituent assembly had betrayed the movement’s legacy by “imposing just one vision” on all of Venezuela and using “the coercive power of the state to create a police state.”

Mr. Maduro has made it clear that he will accept no dissent from his own party, with veiled threats on Monday to throw his attorney general, Luisa Ortega, into a mental institution after she said the vote on Sunday was illegal.

Mr. Chávez’s movement often repeated the notion that its critics were most readily defeated at the ballot box. But with the new constituent assembly likely to replace the legislature, even the populist underpinnings of the movement seem in question.

“More than supporting the people, there’s a determination to stay in power by any means necessary,” said Mark L. Schneider, an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group.

On Tuesday, Venezuelan legislators met at the National Assembly building to continue working despite fears that the new constituent assembly might soon unseat them. In a show of international support, the politicians were joined by ambassadors from Spain, Mexico, France and Britain.

At least 20 countries have rejected the creation of the constituent assembly, and on Monday the United States issued sanctions against Mr. Maduro, calling him “a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people.” Mr. Maduro is now one of only four heads of state to be sanctioned this way, along with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

But the sanctions, dismissed by Venezuelan officials as evidence of American imperialism, may have little effect on the country’s opposition. Its power was based not on foreign support, but on having a place in a political system that is increasingly dominated by Mr. Maduro’s security forces.

“The opposition has limited ability to challenge the government physically,” Mr. Schneider said. “But I suspect you’ll soon see the range of weapons that exist around the country, and outbreaks of violence at local levels.”

Indeed, in the capital, Caracas, some neighborhoods that have aligned with the opposition are being governed by a sense of mob rule.

Impromptu checkpoints were scattered across a five-mile stretch of the capital on the Friday before the vote, as residents set up makeshift barriers made of trees, garbage, old tires and other debris found on the street.

At one such barrier in the Baruta neighborhood, at least 60 masked men and women gathered around the checkpoint. One woman, armed with a scythe, sharpened her blade in the center divider of the road. The people there said they had come to block the entry of colectivos, or government-aligned militias.

“Why haven’t we burned the electoral centers?” one masked woman asked.

By late Tuesday, no one had heard from the two mayors who were taken into custody. Both had been on house arrest before being whisked away in the early hours.

But one of the former mayors, Mr. López, seemed to know that the clock was ticking even before the security forces came.

He had been released into house arrest on July 8 after being sentenced to more than 13 years for causing incitement, among other charges, during protests in 2014.

Before being taken away this time, Mr. López issued a last message to his supporters, telling of the conditions of his imprisonment, urging his followers to continue their resistance and clutching his wife’s stomach, saying she would soon give birth to a child.

“If you are watching this video, it’s because this is exactly what happened: They came and they made me prisoner again,” he said in the message, which was released on Tuesday after his arrest.

On Monday, Mr. Ledezma, the other mayor sent to jail, issued a message of his own, with a strikingly different tone. Standing behind a Venezuelan flag, he offered a damning assessment of the opposition.

He blamed the political parties for being outwitted by Mr. Maduro at every turn. First, the opposition allowed the Supreme Court and electoral council to be stacked by the president’s loyalists, he said. Then it stood by as Mr. Maduro ruled by decree. And when a growing effort to recall the unpopular president was swept aside by friendly courts, the opposition did little to challenge it, Mr. Ledezma said.

“They made a joke of the Parliament,” he said, looking into the camera. “And we have run afoul of the people. And the people deserve answers.”

Yet even the criticism of Mr. Ledezma’s own party appeared too much for Venezuela’s government to tolerate.

After the video was released, the Supreme Court issued a ruling saying that Mr. Ledezma had violated the terms of his house arrest by making “statements in any medium.”

It also said that he and Mr. López were making plans to escape.

In a grainy video posted to Mr. Ledezma’s Twitter account, uniformed men in black helmets can be seen pushing a man in his pajamas out of a building and into a vehicle.

“They are taking away Ledezma! Look we are recording it all here!” a woman screams in the background.

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