By Mircely Guanipa, Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas
CARACAS, Mar 13 (Reuters) – In January, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared a victory by claiming that lawmakers chose his candidate as leader of Congress, putting within his reach the latest independent institution in the oil nation.
Opponents accused the president of bribing and intimidating parliamentarians to prevent his arch rival Juan Guaidó from being re-elected as head of Parliament in the vote on January 5.
A Reuters review of the circumstances surrounding the historic vote shows there was evidence to back up opponents’ allegations.
A previously undisclosed recording of a conversation between two lawmakers, along with interviews with a dozen lawmakers and unpublished text messages, shed light on the government’s strategy of making offers and threats to cause divisions in the coalition that supports Guaidó.
Maduro’s government, under sanctions from the United States, denied having used coercion, like deputy Luis Parra, the figure supported by the ruling party to head Parliament.
A recording reveals that on December 15 at 9 in the morning, Kerrins Mavarez, a 34-year-old Venezuelan legislator, received a phone call from a renowned politician concerned that the government was conspiring to take control of the National Assembly, dominated by the opposition.
The caller was deputy Luis Stefanelli who suspected that Maduro’s allies were trying to bribe and scare lawmakers into backing Luis Parra.
Mavarez confirmed to Stefanelli that he had received phone calls from a government emissary threatening to arrest him and asked how much money he wanted to change sides.
“I am being very scared,” Mavarez told the deputy, who did not identify the emissary. Mavarez said he had resisted the offer and asked Stefanelli for the support of the opposition: “Don’t leave me alone in this.”
“It is important for us to know that we are counting on you,” Stefanelli said in the recording he shared with Reuters, promising Mavarez that opposition leaders would support him. “Your position will mark your life,” he assured her.
By the January 5 vote, Mavarez had already made a decision. He joined 15 other opposition lawmakers to vote against Guaidó’s reelection, and endorsed Luis Parra, a politician aligned with the Socialist party.
At a press conference four days after the vote, Mavarez denied accusations made by other opponents that he accepted bribes and said that he had acted “courageously” because Guaidó failed to fulfill his promises to solve the country’s economic and political crisis.
When asked about the recording by Reuters, Mavarez did not deny its authenticity, saying that both sides pressured him to back Guaidó or Parra, but voted “with full freedom.”
He accused opponents of organizing the threatening messages in December to assess whether he was involved in the plot against Guaidó. A spokesman for the opposition leader said no calls or messages were made. Reuters could not determine whether Mavarez accepted a bribe or who made the calls.
Stefanelli said he taped Mavarez because he suspected he had been “bought,” without giving details.
Parra’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the Ministry of Information.
Opponents interviewed by Reuters said that in December Parra’s allies were looking for some 30 deputies – the number necessary to have a parliamentary majority of 84 legislators – and made offers of up to $ 700,000, choosing parliamentarians who allegedly had financial needs and were frustrated with Guaidó. .
They showed evidence of three cases that are detailed in this story.
“Those who had doubts were called first, those who were unhappy,” said deputy José Guerra, who added that a legislator close to Parra, José Noriega, and who was in the opposition, made many of those calls. Noriega denied it.
Deputies, analysts and people close to the government say that Maduro wanted to take advantage of a decline in Guaidó’s popularity to gain control of Congress, an institution that he has yet to dominate because he already manages the judicial and electoral power and thus have a flexible opposition that could pass the legislation required by your government.
Sources noted that Parra failed to influence enough opposition lawmakers. And that, they added, forced him to prohibit Guaidó and his allies from entering the Assembly on January 5, and to claim the dominance of the Assembly, without showing evidence that it fulfilled the requirement of having a majority of the 167 members of parliament.
Parra has said that there was a quorum to vote, but he never presented an official list of the legislators who voted for him and show that he had the 84 deputies necessary to be elected.
On the day of the vote, soldiers with riot shields blocked the entrance of Guaidó and several opposition deputies to the headquarters of Congress in downtown Caracas to allow pro-government legislators to choose Parra.
Later, Maduro said on state television that Guaidó did not want to enter Congress because he did not have the votes, adding that Parra’s promotion was a “rebellion” within the congress.
On January 5, the opposition leader was re-elected as head of the National Assembly with 100 votes, out of 167, in a session held in the afternoon at the headquarters of a newspaper east of Caracas.
Guaidó, who accuses Maduro of committing fraud in the 2018 presidential election, was proclaimed interim president last year and has the support of dozens of nations.
In December, before the vote, Parra was expelled from an opposition party after being singled out in local media for trying to polish the reputation of a businessman linked to the government. Parra denied it at the time.
Mavarez replaced Stefanelli in the Assembly, who left the country after a December 13 request by the Supreme Court to investigate him for crimes related to an alleged plan to take a military installation.
The Constituent Assembly approved to withdraw their parliamentary immunity three days later, although it is not clear how the case has continued since then.
In a phone interview, Stefanelli, who denies the treason and conspiracy allegations, said he could not reveal his location or when exactly he left the country for security reasons.
The Venezuelan authorities have opened investigations to Guaidó and 30 other legislators. Some of them have had their parliamentary immunity withdrawn and are in exile, detained or in refuge at embassies in Caracas.
When the opposition assumed the majority in Congress in 2016, the highest court and the government applied measures to reduce its functions and the ruling Constituent Assembly was installed to approve regulations. In 2019 the siege increased with court rulings.
During the call with Stefanelli, Mavarez pointed out that an “emissary” told him that he would be arrested for having participated in April 2019 in the opposition call to the military to ignore Maduro and added that as a substitute deputy he had no parliamentary immunity, which made him even more vulnerable.
He told Stefanelli that that morning the emissary asked him: “How much do you want and the account where will it be done?” money transfer. Speaking to Reuters, Mavarez declined to identify the emissary, and Stefanelli said he did not know who it was.
“ALACRÁN WANTS TO CHOP ME”
Legislator Alfonso Marquina was another objective.
On December 11, Marquina attended a congressional meeting during which she reprimanded her colleagues for the mistakes made by the opposition that year, she told Reuters in an interview. Then Noriega, the legislator close to Parra, approached him and suggested that they speak.
Suspecting Noriega’s motives, Marquina sent Guaidó a message to keep him informed.
“Brother President, the scorpion wants to sting me,” Marquina told Guaidó, referring to the government’s pressure on the deputies and that the opposition called “Operation Alacrán.”
They agreed that he would go meet with Noriega to find out more. The next morning, Noriega wrote to Marquina. “Comrade, good morning. I’ll wait for you at 8 a.m. at the Tamanaco for breakfast,” he said, referring to the luxurious Tamanaco hotel in Caracas, according to messages seen by Reuters.
Once at the hotel restaurant, Marquina said she placed a phone in a bag next to her table to secretly record her conversation. In the five-minute recording, which Marquina presented publicly in January, Noriega offered him $ 700,000 to support Parra, with a payment of 150,000 before the vote.
“The one who extends his hand, to accept the initial amount, is already making a commitment,” said Noriega.
In a note to Reuters, Noriega denied the conversation, saying the recording was part of a campaign led by Guaidó to discredit Parra’s election. A spokesman for the opposition leader said the tape was genuine. Marquina highlighted the authenticity of the audio. He said he rejected the money, but assured that 15 other legislators did have a price.
Arkiely Perfecto, who left a pro-Maduro party last January and joined the opposition, told a colleague in December that he had accepted 50,000 euros, although he felt “terrible” about doing so, according to WhatsApp messages published by his political organization, which expelled it.
“The dignity I have maintained has allowed many people I love in my family to lie on an empty stomach,” Perfecto said in a text message to a colleague, which was seen by Reuters, referring to offers he had rejected. .
Perfect, in a message to Reuters, said that she had not accepted any money and that the texts had been manufactured by the Democratic and Inclusion Movement, to which she belonged, to harm her.
The organization’s leader, Nicmer Evans, said the expulsion of Perfecto was after a disciplinary investigation that determined that he had received the payment.
(Additional report by Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Shaylim Valderrama, Translated by Mayela Armas, Edited in Spanish by Juana Casas)