Venezuela descends into chaos after Supreme Court takes over role of Congress

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 3:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 3:55am

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has announced it is taking over the functions of congress due to “contempt” by opposition lawmakers, sparking accusations that socialist President Nicolas Maduro has become a dictator.

The head of the Organisation of American States denounced the move as a coup. The Supreme Court’s order on the National Assembly and another that stripped members of the assembly of parliamentary immunity are “the latest blows with which the regime subverts the constitutional order of the country and puts an end to democracy,” said OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.

Peru said it was recalling its ambassador to Venezuela and condemned the recent decision by Venezuela’s Supreme Court as a “flagrant breach of democratic order.”

Peru foreign affairs ministry added that it has started consultations with other members of the Organisation of American States to discuss urgent measures to preserve democracy in Venezuela.

The pro-Maduro court had already annulled most of the National Assembly’s decisions since the opposition won a legislative majority in late 2015 due to voter fury over an unprecedented economic crisis.

Then late on Wednesday, it explicitly stated it was assuming the legislature’s role in a ruling authorising Maduro to create oil joint ventures without the previously mandated congressional approval.

“As long as the situation of contempt in the National Assembly continues, this constitutional chamber guarantees congressional functions will be exercised by this chamber or another chosen organ,” the court said in its ruling.

The contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though these legislators no longer sit in the legislature, the court says parliamentary leaders have not handled their case properly.

Critics of Maduro say those charges are an excuse for him to consolidate power and muzzle the opposition as his popularity plummets amid widespread disgust over a severe recession, hyperinflation and acute shortages of food and medicine.

Maduro was narrowly elected in 2013 to replace late leftist president Hugo Chavez.

Leaders of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition renewed their demand for early presidential elections and accused Maduro of duplicating Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori’s notorious 1992 closure of congress.

“Nicolas Maduro has carried out a ‘coup d’etat’ ... this is a dictatorship,” said National Assembly President Julio Borges, before tearing up a copy of the Supreme Court ruling at a news conference in the gardens of the legislature.

“This is trash from people who have kidnapped the constitution, rights and freedom of Venezuelans ... The National Assembly does not recognise the Supreme Court, whom they (government) themselves elected when we were elected by 14 million Venezuelans.”

The opposition promised new street protests starting from Saturday - but that tactic has failed in the past despite marches that have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Last year, the opposition pushed for a referendum to try and recall Maduro and force a new presidential election, but authorities thwarted them and also postponed local electoral races that were supposed to have been held in 2016. Maduro’s term in office ends in January 2019.

Spooked by the opposition’s warning that investment deals bypassing congress would not be valid, foreign oil companies were closely following the political showdown.

As Venezuela tries to raise funds for bond payments and a reeling economy, it has sought to sell stakes in oil fields.

State oil company PDVSA recently offered Russia’s Rosneft a stake in the Petrolia oil joint venture, sources said.

“We want to make perfectly clear to all the oil companies that any strategic alliance (that did not go through congress) is null,” Borges reiterated on Thursday.