Venezuela’s newly formed National Assembly on Wednesday was put on a collision course with the Supreme Court in a fight that threatens to to leave this deeply polarized nation hamstrung — at least temporarily.
Even as the impasse was taking shape in congress, President Nicolás Maduro announced a major shakeup in his cabinet, saying that the new political reality and a deepening economic crisis required a forceful response.
Along with replacing key figures — among them, naming Gov. Aristóbulo Istúriz Vice President — he created new positions, including the ministries of foreign trade and investment, agriculture and land, urban agriculture, and fishing and aquiculture.
The new spots seem to underscore the shortage of food and basic products that have wracked the country, soured the national mood, and helped the opposition win congress for the first time in 17 years.
During the National Assembly’s first regular session Wednesday, tensions were high even before the gavel came down. Earlier in the day, National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup ordered the removal of portraits of late President Hugo Chávez from the building, and local media showed images of workers wheeling out posters and banners of the man who’s still revered by many loyalists.
“Today, serious things took place in the National Assembly,” Maduro said. The opposition has “quickly taken off its mask because they feel like they have the power and they’re going to take everything away from us,” he added.
But the simmering power struggle began taking shape on Dec. 23 when the lame-duck National Assembly — 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, which include three opposition members, could not take their seats due to election irregularities.
On Wednesday, however, congress — now in the hands of the opposition MUD coalition — swore in those members, saying the court didn’t have the right to violate the will of the people.
As expected, the ruling party fired back. Diosdado Cabello, who had been president of congress until Tuesday’s change-over, said that bucking the Supreme Court’s order meant that congress was now illegitimate.
“No decision made [in the National Assembly] will have any legal validity,” he said. “We’re headed for a clash of powers.”
He suggested that that the Official Gazette, which must publish laws for them to go into effect, could not legally do so. And he said the government should cut off funding to congress.
The ruling party said it plans to file a complaint with the administration-controlled Constitutional Court.
The opposition, however, says it was the PSUV that violated the law by making the last-ditch appointments. On Wednesday, the assembly announced it would create a congressional commission to review the nominations.
Freddy Valera, an opposition deputy from Bolívar state, said the judicial appointments were tantamount to vote stealing. And he accused the ruling party of stacking a compliant court to evade lingering corruption allegations.
“You are violating the will of the people by using an illicit court that you nominated in the dead of night,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, the National Assembly passed a bill allowing the media to enter the congressional building. For the last five years, the only media outlet allowed inside has been the ANTV public television station.
After the opposition won the landslide congressional victory Dec. 5, ANTV was dissolved and restructured. It didn’t provide coverage of Tuesday’s swearing-in or Wednesday’s session.
Less than 72 hours old, the new congress has generated heat, saying that it one of its main goals will be to find a constitutional way to oust Maduro before his term ends in 2019.
“They want revenge — from me personally,” Maduro told his newly formed cabinet Wednesday. “The oligarchy hates us.”
Among the key appointments made Wednesday were the following: Istúriz, the governor of Anzoátegui state, was named Vice President, while outgoing VP Arreaza was named Minister of Higher Education.
Luis Salas, a relatively unknown academic, was named Vice President of Economy. Maduro said the 39-year-old was an expert on the “economic war” he blames for the country’s woes.
Jesús Faria, a member of the PSUV directorate, was named to the newly created ministry of foreign trade and investment.
Maduro ordered the team to pull the economy — facing a recession and runaway inflation amid falling oil prices — out the crisis. And he said it was imperative to keep “savage capitalism” and leaders like National Assembly President Ramos at bay.
“The country cannot fall back into those hands ever again,” he said of Ramos. “It would be a historic crime for the country.”