Foreign Ministers of Mercosur, Argentina's Jorge Faurie, Paraguay's Eladio Loizaga, Brazil's Aloysio Nunes Ferreira and Uruguay's Rodolfo Nin Novoa, and Sao Paulo's mayor Joao Doria attend a media conference after their South American trade bloc Mercosur meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
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South American trade bloc Mercosur has suspended Venezuela indefinitely in a symbolic show of force following President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to push ahead with an election for an all-powerful constituent assembly, which critics fear will crush the last vestiges of democracy in the crisis-ridden nation.

Foreign ministers of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil said after a meeting in São Paulo on Saturday that they have triggered its “democratic clause” and decided “unanimously to suspend Venezuela from the bloc for a rupture of the democratic order”. They said they would not allow it back in the group until democracy is restored.

Argentina’s foreign minister, Jorge Faurie, said: “Stop with the repressive Venezuela, stop with the dictatorial Venezuela”. His Brazilian counterpart Aloysio Nunes said: “In Mercosur, a country that commits such barbarities against fundamental freedoms cannot be part of our association.”

The bloc is demanding the release of political prisoners and the launch of a political transition. Mercosur had already suspended Venezuela temporarily from the bloc in December for not complying with its regulations. 

Mr Nunes said the decision will barely affect already shrinking trade. “We are only exporting food at the moment. Suspending that will only deepen the crisis.” Outside São Paulo’s city hall, where the meeting took place, some expat Venezuelans gathered with placards reading “no more dictatorship” and “free Venezuela”. 

Although it is still unclear what the international pressure could do, Mercosur’s move ended years of flip-flopping while Venezuela descended into chaos. For Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, it was “an important, though long overdue, step.”

In Argentina, the centre-right president Mauricio Macri tweeted on Thursday that his government would strip Mr Maduro of its most distinguished decoration — the Order of the Liberator General San Martín, named after the South American independence hero — for “the systematic violation of human rights”. 

The medal was awarded to him in 2013 by Mr Macri’s populist predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Mr Macri explained that he backed Venezuela’s suspension from Mercosur because of Argentina’s standing “as a democratic country”. Despite these moves, there has been some division within the group.

While officials in the conservative administration of Paraguay have expressed similar views as Brazil and Argentina, the centre-left government of Uruguay has been more reluctant to take a hard line. It was believed to have undermined a previous attempt to suspend Venezuela from the group.

Mr Maduro's move to install the assembly has met widespread international condemnation, including from the Vatican on Friday. The two biggest exceptions are China and Russia. Beijing, which has loaned Caracas $60bn, said the elections were “generally held smoothly”, though noting “the reaction from all relevant sides”. 

Moscow said it “believed that the latest election is sending a clear message regarding the long-overdue need to overcome the current national crisis through dialogue, under the law.” But Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States called it the “biggest electoral fraud” in Latin America’s history.

The vote has been plagued by allegations of fraud, including from the UK-based company, Smartmatic, that provides Venezuela with electronic voting machines.

Venezuelan attorney-general Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has become a vocal critic of Mr Maduro’s government, had also filed a motion for a court order to block the constituent assembly’s installation. But on Saturday, Ms Ortega Díaz was sacked as members of the constitutional assembly moved ahead with vows to swiftly punish foes.

“Don’t think we’re going to wait weeks, months or years,” Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuela's former foreign minister turned assembly leader, was quoted as saying. “Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you.”

Mr Ortega Díaz’s replacement, Tarek William Saab, was recently sanctioned by the United States, alongside other senior socialist officials

For Raúl Gallegos, a Venezuela analyst at Control Risks: “The new assembly will give a new lease on life to the unpopular Maduro government. Maduro is far from cornered, despite violent anti-government protests and a hostile international community.”

Additional reporting by Benedict Mander in Buenos Aires, John Paul Rathbone in Miami, and Gideon Long in Caracas

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