CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress has opened a political trial against President Nicolas Maduro for breaking the constitutional order, deepening a standoff triggered by authorities' suspension of a recall referendum against the widely unpopular socialist leader.
The move, in a special legislative session Tuesday, had been expected ever since opposition leaders declared themselves in open rebellion and called for street demonstrations to force Maduro from office. But it's unlikely to have any legal effect as Maduro still controls other branches of government, including the military and Supreme Court, which has already declared the National Assembly illegitimate.
In Tuesday's vote, in which the opposition argued Maduro had effectively abandoned the presidency by neglecting his job, several lawmakers also questioned whether he was a dual Colombian national and therefore ineligible to hold Venezuela's highest office. It's an old, unproven claim widely seen as a stretch but one that analysts say is a reaction to the government's own trampling of the constitution in scrapping the recall that offered the best hope of peacefully resolving Venezuela's political and economic crisis.
"If Maduro has dual nationality, he has no constitutional right to govern Venezuela," said Juan Miguel Matheus, an opposition lawmaker. "He'll go down as one of the biggest liars in history and the constitutional mechanisms to remove him from power and call new elections should be activated."
Unlike other countries in Latin America such as Brazil, where Dilma Rousseff was removed from the presidency in August, Venezuela's National Assembly can't impeach the president. That decision lies squarely with the Supreme Court, which has never voted against Maduro.
Maduro, speaking at a rally Tuesday, accused opposition lawmakers of behaving like members of a "circus" and trying to carry out a "parliamentary coup."
"The National Assembly has been transformed into a bastion of evil and bitterness, it is useless to the interests of our country and our people," he told thousands of mostly state workers outside the presidential palace upon arriving from a six-day tour of the Middle East and Europe. "It has a single goal: to damage Venezuela."
He also lashed out at President Barack Obama.
"Obama is going and before he leaves he wants to cause Venezuela damage," he said. "This is Obama swiping his tail before he leaves."
Elsewhere, in western Venezuela, students clashed with security forces for a second day. In the Andean town of Merida, police used tear gas to squash a small group of protesters that had blocked a major road, injuring eight people, according to reports on social media.
Even as tempers flare, with Maduro's opponents gearing up for a mass demonstration Wednesday that's been billed the "Taking of Venezuela," the government and opposition have agreed to embark on an attempt at dialogue to defuse the crisis.
The talks, being sponsored by the Vatican and other South American governments, are set to begin Oct. 30 in the Caribbean island of Margarita. Maduro, who met with Pope Francis privately at the Vatican on Monday, said he will travel to Margarita to personally launch the talks.
But having gone down this road before during previous crisis, the opposition has scant hope for a breakthrough. Although Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for food lines and triple-digit inflation the ruling party is in firm control of institutions like the military and has shown no interest in yielding to the opposition.
Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino, who many had been looking to as a potential brake on Maduro, spoke to the nation Tuesday dressed in camouflaged fatigues and surrounded by the top military command urging dialogue but calling on the opposition to respect the constitution.
That earned an angry rebuke from National Assembly President Henry Ramos, who during the special session accused the U.S.-trained military man of abandoning his constitutional duty to uphold Venezuela's democracy.
"How can he talk of respecting the constitution if he has become the foremost pimp of this regime's violation of the constitution," Ramos said, challenging security forces to arrest him when he attempts next week to travel to Washington to denounce Maduro's latest power grab. "You're a minister of an armed forces that nobody cares for or fears, that's what you've managed to achieve."
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/joshua-goodman