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Did Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro stage a coup?

In a rowdy session of Venezuela's legislature, lawmakers declared Sunday that, by blocking a recall effort, President Nicolas Maduro had staged a coup.

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Lawmakers stand as a group of government supporters force their way into the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday. Government supporters interrupted a special congressional session where lawmakers were discussing bringing legal charges against President Nicolas Maduro.

Ariana Cubillos/AP

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Venezuelan lawmakers declared Sunday that President Nicolas Maduro had staged a coup by blocking an effort to remove the unpopular leader from office, a decision that came during a heated legislative session that was briefly interrupted by dozens of demonstrators. 

The vote came days after a court suspended opposition lawmakers' campaign to collect signatures to hold a referendum to recall President Maduro, escalating political tensions in Venezuela and resulting in a vow by lawmakers to put the president on trial.

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The session on Sunday turned even more raucous when roughly 100 pro-Maduro protesters wearing red shirts burst onto the floor, chanting, "Congress will fall!" After the protesters had left the building, opposition lawmakers said the situation directly reflected their complaints about the state of democracy in Venezuela.

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"The fact that lawmakers elected by 7.5 million people were silenced by 300 thugs sums up the situation better than any speech could," Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) spokesman Jesus Torrealba told the Associated Press. 

The move to take legal action against the president is unlikely to produce results, as the Maduro administration controls the courts. But the vow demonstrates just how extreme political tensions have become in Venezuela, where as many as 80 percent of voters tell pollsters that they want the president removed from office this year. 

"It is a political and legal trial against President Nicolas Maduro to see what responsibility he has in the constitutional rupture that has broken democracy, human rights, and the future of the country," said opposition majority leader Julio Borges, as reported by Reuters.

The little support the president still has left reflects core supporters of Chavismo, a movement led by Maduro's late predecessor Hugo Chávez, as David Iaconangelo reported for The Christian Science Monitor in July: 

"They have seen their life changed during the Chávez period and they are still grateful to the movement that he created," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based electoral expert, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

Under Chávez, the ranks of government employees swelled, and many of those who remain feel they owe their livelihoods to Maduro's leftist coalition. And with the economy contracting, some may fear that austerity measures under the opposition's leadership would bring mass layoffs.

Part of Maduro's core support, said Mr. Pantoulas, is about distrust of the political opposition, which swept into control of the Venezuelan National Assembly in December.

The court ruling last Thursday, which suspended the recall vote on the grounds of alleged fraud during signature collection, was condemned by the US State Department and the Organization of American States. Congress approved a resolution on Sunday officially asking the international community to intervene and "protect the people's right to democracy by any means necessary."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.