Caracas, Oct 24: Venezuela's opposition-majority legislature declared that President Nicolas Maduro's government had committed a coup d'etat by blocking a referendum on removing him from power, vowing mass protests and international pressure.
Furious over the electoral authorities' decision to suspend the process of organizing a recall vote, opposition lawmakers on Saturday passed a resolution declaring "the breakdown of constitutional order" and "a coup d'etat committed by the Nicolas Maduro regime."
In an emergency session on the economic and political crisis gripping the South American oil giant, lawmakers called on Venezuelans to "actively defend" the constitution and declared they would ask the international community to "activate mechanisms" to restore democracy.
"A continual coup d'etat has been perpetrated in Venezuela, culminating in the decision to rob us of a recall referendum. We're here to officially declare the regrettable and painful rupture of the constitution," said majority leader Julio Borges of the center-right opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
Pro-Maduro lawmakers accused the opposition itself of seeking to stage a coup. "Don't try to take advantage of these hard times to finish off our nation," deputy Earle Herrera said.
Opposition lawmakers stopped short of voting to put Maduro on trial, as they had threatened to do in the day's agenda. The session briefly descended into chaos when a group of Maduro supporters forced its way past security guards and burst into the National Assembly, causing lawmakers to halt the proceedings for 45 minutes.
Despite its harsh words, the legislature's resolution is largely symbolic. The Supreme Court has declared the legislative majority in contempt of court for defying it by swearing in three lawmakers at the center of an electoral fraud investigation. The opposition, which says the accusations are trumped up, condemns the high court as a Maduro lapdog.
The court has slapped down every bill passed by the legislature since the opposition took control in January. Venezuela's crisis hit a new low Thursday when the National Electoral Council (CNE) indefinitely suspended the recall referendum process after criminal courts in five states ruled the opposition had committed fraud in an initial petition drive.
Holding a recall referendum -- a right guaranteed under Venezuela's constitution -- was the opposition's main strategy to get rid of the man they accuse of driving the once-booming country to the brink of collapse.
The opposition had been gearing up for the last hurdle in the complex process: a three-day drive starting Wednesday to collect signatures from four million voters demanding a recall vote.
Now that the authorities have stymied that bid, furious opposition leaders have promised the start of a new wave of nationwide protests on Wednesday. A recent poll found more than 75 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of the socialist leader.