Venezuela

Venezuela court effectively shuts down congress as opposition cries ‘coup’

In this Jan. 15, 2017 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks with first lady Cilia Flores as they arrive at the Supreme Court before he delivered his state of the union address in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday night that it can take over responsibilities assigned to Congress. Justices pictured from left to right; Supreme Court Vice President Maikel Moreno; Supreme Court President Gladys Gutierrez; and Supreme Court Justice Indira Alfonso.
In this Jan. 15, 2017 file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks with first lady Cilia Flores as they arrive at the Supreme Court before he delivered his state of the union address in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday night that it can take over responsibilities assigned to Congress. Justices pictured from left to right; Supreme Court Vice President Maikel Moreno; Supreme Court President Gladys Gutierrez; and Supreme Court Justice Indira Alfonso. AP

In a move rejected throughout the region and decried as a “coup” by the opposition, Venezuela’s Supreme Court effectively shut down congress, saying it would assume all legislative functions amid its contention that legislators are operating outside of the law.

The decision will undoubtedly increase tensions in the South American nation where the opposition-controlled congress was seen as a last bastion of dissent. The move is also a slap at the international community, which just this week was pressing the socialist administration to respect the role of the legislature and to hold new elections.

As news spread about the ruling, condemnation was swift. Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro said it was tantamount to a “self-inflicted coup” and called for an emergency meeting of the permanent council. Peru broke off diplomatic relations, and the United States, Mexico and Colombia condemned the move.

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In a ruling published late Wednesday, the Supreme Court said that because the National Assembly continued to defy previous court rulings, all of the assembly’s actions were deemed “invalid” and that “the activities of the parliament would be exercised directly by [this court].”

The ruling essentially dissolves congress at a time when it was trying to push back against President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, which control virtually all the levers of power.

The opposition Voluntad Popular party called the move a “clear coup against our constitution and the National Assembly, which was elected by more than 15 million Venezuelans.”

The power grab goes back to January 2016, when the National Assembly swore in three opposition representatives from the Amazon state even though the court had decided to investigate their election on suspicion of voter fraud. That investigation continues, and the opposition has said the court is simply trying to rob it of its super majority.

Previously, the court had declared the National Assembly in “contempt” for ignoring earlier court decisions, but this ruling went further: The court granted itself the legislative powers that had been held by the congress.

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Opposition Congressman Freddy Guevara, with the Voluntad Popular party, said the court’s decision wasn’t “just another ruling” and called for street demonstrations and “democratic resistance” to defend the country’s institutions.

“This ruling marks a point of no return for this dictatorship,” he said.

Peter Schechter, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said it was time to treat Venezuela like a “pariah state.”

“Maduro’s dissolution of the National Assembly is more than a blow to Venezuelan democracy, it is a beating — yet another sign that the country’s political system is crumbling and fast,” he said in a statement. “If there was any doubt before, there should no longer be one: Venezuela is a dictatorship.”

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At the heart of the ruling is the government’s desire to take on more international financing to overcome a crushing economic crisis. Approving additional debt is congress’ constitutional duty, and the opposition had pledged to stand in the way. Maduro and his allies, in turn, have accused the opposition of fueling an “economic war” aimed at destabilizing the socialist administration.

Standing on the steps of the legislature Thursday, National Assembly President Julio Borges tore up a copy of the ruling, calling it “garbage.” He and other legislators said they would keep working and defending the institution.

Florida Republicans also weighed in.

“The Maduro regime’s corruption of Venezuela’s judiciary to once again ignore the will of the Venezuelan people and sideline the National Assembly is another shameful assault on democracy and the rule of law,” said Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. “An independent judiciary and representation in government are essential to a democracy.”

The move comes after the OAS debated on Monday whether Venezuela was fulfilling its democratic obligations. Secretary General Almagro has said the country needs to hold regional elections — which were supposed to take place last year — and said the government needs to respect congress, which is seen as the only forum left for opposition voices to be heard.

“The restoration of democracy is an obligation we all share,” the OAS said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for the hemisphere to work together to help restore democracy in Venezuela. We have an obligation to the people of Venezuela to act without further delay. To be silent in the face of a dictatorship is the lowest indignity in politics.”

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