Barring last minute changes, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Friday will do what none of his predecessors have done in the last 150 years: pass a budget without going through congress.
Instead, Maduro will have his 2017 budget approved by a “People’s Assembly” and a compliant court, effectively stripping the opposition-controlled legislature of one of its principal constitutional roles.
And with that stroke of the pen, the country could find itself in uncharted financial waters.
“I told an investor the other day that he shouldn’t buy or swap bonds unless he thought Maduro was going to become a dictator and stay in power the next 10, 15 or 25 years,” said opposition deputy Alfonso Marquina, “because any democratically elected government in the future is not going to recognize debt that was emitted under these conditions.”
Marquina and other legal scholars say that every year since 1861 — including periods of dictatorship — Venezuela’s leaders have recognized congress’ role in passing the budget.
“Now, Nicolás Maduro wants to run the nation’s finances like it was his own little store, where he takes the money and gives the change,” Marquina said.
The move is just the latest blow to congress, which came under opposition control for the first time in 15 years in January.
Since that time, the high court has issued at least 27 rulings undermining legislative authority, said Xavier Rodríguez, the director of Entorno Parlamentario, a legislative watchdog group.
“What we’re seeing here is very worrisome,” he said. “It’s a sort of institutional coup that is unprecedented in the contemporary history of Venezuela.”
The latest impasse started on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court ruled that Maduro should present the budget to the court’s Constitutional Chamber — not congress. The justices argued that Maduro’s decree powers give him that right, and that congress had gone rogue after ignoring previous high-court rulings.
But the clash can be traced back to Dec. 6, when the country voted overwhelmingly for opposition legislative candidates. On Dec. 23, the lame-duck congress, still in the hands of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), appointed 13 high-court justices.
Days later, those same judges ruled that the incoming congressional candidates from Amazon State, including three opposition members, could not take their seats due to election irregularities. Crucially, those three missing representatives meant the opposition didn’t have the votes needed for a super-majority.
Congress seated Amazon representatives anyway, leading the courts and the executive branch to declare the legislature and its decisions illegitimate.
Based on that thinking, Maduro on Wednesday said it was congress, not the courts, that had overstepped the law.
“The National Assembly has taken shortcuts, abandoned the constitution and is standing on a precipice,” he told supporters during a rally. “Venezuela’s right wing ... is too ambitious, is power hungry and is divided. [It’s] morally and mentally incompetent.”
Ruling party congressman Carlos Gamarra on Friday agreed that his job in the legislature was an exercise in futility.
“The actions of the parliament have no validity and are plagued by unconstitutionality,” he told VTV television. So Maduro had no choice but take his budget to the courts, Gamarra argued.
The budget crisis couldn’t come at a worse time. The country is saddled with sinking economic growth, triple-digit inflation and sporadic shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods.
Under those circumstances, the nation’s oil income needs to be used wisely.
“The country has the right to know what its money is being spent on,” opposition deputy Ángel Alvarado said in a statement.
The crisis comes as the opposition is trying to organize a presidential recall. With approval ratings near 20 percent, analysts say there’s little doubt the country would choose to oust Maduro. But all this week, there have been rumors that the same high court that issued the budget ruling is going to shut down that effort.
Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who has been pushing for the recall, said the court has proved that it’s willing to trample the law in order to preserve the socialist administration.
“Everything this government does is against the constitution and Venezuelans,” he said. “They’re exacerbating the crisis ... because they know that the country wants to oust Maduro.”