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Things in Venezuela have gone from bad to worse

Lawmakers were severely beaten by supporters of President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday.

Opposition lawmakers brawl with pro-government militias who are trying to force their way into the National Assembly during a special session. CREDIT: AP Photos/Fernando Llano
Opposition lawmakers brawl with pro-government militias who are trying to force their way into the National Assembly during a special session. CREDIT: AP Photos/Fernando Llano

Venezuelan lawmakers were severely beaten by supporters of President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday in the latest bout of violence to rock the country.

During a special session at the opposition-controlled National Assembly coinciding with celebrations marking Venezuela’s independence from Spain, pro-Maduro loyalists armed with pipes burst into the building and began attacking politicians and journalists. At least 15 people were reportedly injured, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro told BuzzFeed at the time of the attack.

“We are living through a coup d’etat that is trying to reinstate a dictatorship,” Pizarro said. “As I talk to you, explosives are being thrown at the doors of the Legislative Palace.”

At least one politician, Americo De Grazia, fell unconscious when he hit his head. Video footage of the incident showed bloodied lawmakers stumbling and clashing with assailants as those being targeted attempted to exit the building.

Maduro downplayed the violence, distancing himself from any culpability and placing responsibility directly on the opposition. “Strange acts have occurred, always strange acts wherever the opposition is around,” he said.

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Only the latest chapter in the country’s escalating political crisis, the incident highlights how political instability has taken a toll on Venezuelans. Under the leadership of first Hugo Chavez and now Maduro, economic missteps (namely price controls) led to an escalating series of problems. But when oil prices began to plummet in 2014, the country faced a new struggle: food shortages. Electricity fluctuations, dwindling medical supplies, and limited access to other necessities, like water, soon took their toll. Unable to sustain themselves, many Venezuelans fled to Brazil and Colombia, while dissatisfaction with the government mounted at home.

Increasing instability and opposition spurred Maduro to crack down, first on elections, which the government suspended last fall, and then on the National Assembly. In March, Maduro moved to hand the body’s powers over to the Supreme Court, which is much more favorable to the government.

The decision set off an enduring wave of protests, further inflamed by Maduro’s subsequent calls for Venezuela’s constitution to be rewritten. Students have been particularly active, assembling in the streets and demanding Maduro’s resignation, in addition to new elections. But they’ve been met with resistance and extreme violence. At least 90 people have died in the past three months as demonstrations have spiked, with many more injured, including those beaten on Wednesday.

International responses to the crisis have ranged. Members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) have failed to find common ground on the issue; in June, the body failed to issue a statement condemning Maduro’s government. While the United States has denounced the government’s crackdowns — and pushed, along with Mexico, for a resolution condemning them — U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been focusing foreign policy efforts elsewhere, namely in the Middle East. As a result, limited attention has been paid to the crisis in much of North America despite Venezuela’s relative proximity, something increasing violence has failed to change.

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But while protests have become commonplace, the violence at the National Assembly has notable significance. Before the incident, lawmakers held a session approving a plebiscite asking Venezuelans to weigh in on Maduro’s various plans, which will be held on July 16. After the siege, opposition still remained the underlying theme for those finally able to leave the building.

“This does not hurt as much as seeing every day how we are losing our country,” Armando Armas, one of those injured, told reporters following the attack as he was taken away for treatment.

Wednesday’s bloody clash follows an uptick in large-scale demonstrations of opposition. Last week, police officer and sometimes-actor Óscar Pérez hijacked a helicopter and flew it over the Supreme Court, at which he and several accomplices lobbed grenades. While Maduro’s supporters honed in on Pérez’s antics, opposition protesters argued that the incident was a stunt intended to drum up support for the president. Pérez has reportedly not been seen since the hijacking.