June 19, 2018 / 9:08 PM / a month ago

Veteran Chavez ally Cabello to lead Venezuelan Constituent Assembly

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s all-powerful Constituent Assembly elected as its head on Tuesday Socialist Party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, boosting the profile of a political leader who the United States has accused of being a coordinator of international drug shipments.

FILE PHOTO: National constituent assembly's member Diosdado Cabello speaks during a session of the assembly at Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

President Nicolas Maduro last year led the creation of the 545-member assembly, which the opposition and foreign governments have called the consolidation of a dictatorship because it has given the ruling Socialist Party unchecked power.

Tuesday’s vote appears to reverse years of waning influence for Cabello, who had been one of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s closest allies but whose presence steadily faded after Maduro’s 2013 election.

“You can count on this soldier, I will not rest for a single instant,” said Cabello, a former military officer, in a televised acceptance speech.

Imposing sanctions, U.S. authorities in May accused Cabello and Maduro of profiting from illegal narcotics shipments.

Cabello, who often taunts critics via his own weekly show on state television, has dismissed the accusations as fabrications meant to tarnish his reputation.

The Constituent Assembly’s deputies are all Socialist Party supporters because the opposition boycotted the 2017 election that created it.

Officially tasked with re-writing the constitution, the Constituent Assembly has taken over many of the functions of the opposition-run legislature without so far advancing any constitutional overhauls.

Maduro last year said the Constituent Assembly was the best way to guarantee peace after four months of often violent street protests triggered by the Supreme Court briefly assuming legislative power.

The pro-government Supreme Court has stripped the legislature of most of its powers since the Socialist Party lost its majority in a landslide 2015 vote.

Cabello replaces outgoing Constituent Assembly chief Delcy Rodriguez, who was named vice president by Maduro last week.

The Constituent Assembly also named Calixto Ortega, who has worked as Finance Vice President for Venezuelan-owned refiner Citgo, to run the central bank.

Venezuela is suffering from an economic collapse that includes chronic shortages of food and medicine and annualised inflation around 25,000 percent. Maduro blames an “economic war” directed by the opposition and the United States.

(This version of the story corrects prior role of new central bank chief.)

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago and Angus Berwick; Editing by Sandra Maler and Rosalba O'Brien

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