Venezuela’s embattled opposition took another direct hit Friday, when the government-controlled National Constituent Assembly effectively usurped congress.
The assembly, or ANC, said it would be assuming legislative functions to “preserve peace, security and sovereignty.” Although it didn’t outright dissolve congress — one of the last bastions of the opposition — it effectively left the already weak institution powerless.
Organization of American States Secretary General Luís Almagro said the “fraudulent dissolution” represented a “deepening of coup” by President Nicolás Maduro and his ruling PSUV party.
And Human Rights Watch Director Jose Miguel Vivanco called it a “coup de grace to the hope of a democratic Venezuela.”
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Lawmakers said they wouldn’t obey the ANC’s decision and asked the international community and Venezuelans to stand firm.
The new body “is doing exactly what the entire world warned it would do,” Congressional President Julio Borges told El Nuevo Herald, “installing a dictatorship in Venezuela.”
Maduro and his followers have argued that congress is helping fuel more than four months of anti-government protests that have left more than 120 dead, and hindering economic reform.
“We will teach them a historic lesson,” ANC President Delcy Rodriguez said as delegates broke into loud applause while voting unanimously for the measure, according to The Associated Press.
The power grab came the same day that Venezuela’s ousted chief prosecutor, Luísa Ortega, told a meeting of prosecutors that she was being persecuted because of her investigations into the Odebrecht bribery scandal. The Brazilian construction firm has admitted that it paid $100 million in bribes to Venezuelan officials.
On Monday, speaking to the group via webcam, Ortega said that her investigators had tied “Nicolás Maduro and his circle” to the case. And she said anti-corruption investigators were being barred from leaving the country, in an attempt to bury the investigation.
Venezuelan authorities raided Ortega’s house and issued an arrest warrant for her husband, a ruling-party congressman, this week.
Colombian immigration officials confirmed Friday that Ortega arrived in Colombia on a private flight from Aruba.
The opposition won a majority of congress in 2015 but it has been undermined from the beginning. In particular, the compliant Supreme Court routinely assumed congressional powers and undercut the institution.
In March, the court tried to dissolve congress, only to backtrack amid a national outcry. That decision, however, was one of the factors that triggered the months-long protests.
But it’s unclear whether Friday’s move will generate the same kind of reaction. Opposition protests have largely died down amid fatigue and divisions within the opposition.
Early this month, the administration convened the ANC, which has sweeping powers to rewrite the constitution. Legal scholars and critics say the body is illegal because the government never held a referendum to approve the entity, as required by the constitution.
The move comes as Washington seems to be struggling with how to deal with Venezuela. The Trump administration has sanctioned 30 officials and has threatened to take stronger economic actions. Last week, Trump said he wouldn’t rule out a military solution — even as other officials downplayed the idea amid regional push-back.
“We join Venezuela's neighbors in condemning the illegitimate Constituent Assembly and its authoritarian directives,” U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “As long as the Maduro regime continues to conduct itself as an authoritarian dictatorship, we are prepared to bring the full weight of American economic and diplomatic power to bear in support of the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy.”
Venezuela will hold regional elections in October, in a process that has left the opposition divided over whether it should participate in a vote it sees as unfair, or boycott it in protest.
María Corina Machado, an opposition leader who won’t participate in elections she considers a sham, said on Twitter that Friday’s action had “destroyed what was left of the Republic.”
Even so, Borges asked the international community to keep pressing the government for free elections “so that Venezuelans can choose their future.”
El Nuevo Herald Reporter Antonio Maria Delgado contributed to this report
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss