As Venezuela’s ruling party Thursday continued to consolidate its power, stripping an opposition governor of his seat and calling for municipal elections, five fugitive judges gathered in neighboring Colombia for a session of the “Supreme Court in exile.”
The men, some of Venezuela’s best legal minds, are among the 33 judges who were named to Venezuela’s Supreme Court in July by the opposition-controlled congress. But they weren’t ever able to take their seats.
Shortly after the judges were named to the court, President Nicolás Maduro declared the act illegal. He accused the magistrates of treason and usurping judicial powers, and said they could face 30-year jail sentences.
Two of the judges turned in their resignations, one is under house arrest in Venezuela and the remaining 30 fled across the Americas to Chile, Panama, Colombia and the United States.
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Since then, the scattered judges have been convening online, via Skype, and fighting for a country where the rule of law is increasingly in the fist of the ruling socialist party.
“There have been other governments in exile before,” said Rafael Ortega Matos, the court’s second vice president, who fled to Colombia in August. “But a Supreme Court in exile is unheard of.”
On Wednesday, the group of judges in the United States issued a ruling from Washington, D.C., declaring Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, which was elected in July 30 amid widespread accusations of fraud, illegitimate. In the ruling, the judges also called on the people of Venezuela to engage in “peaceful resistance” to defend the constitution.
But it’s uncertain what impact, if any, the call to action might have in a country where the opposition appears weak and demoralized amid a humiliating electoral loss and vicious infighting.
On Oct. 15, defying most expectations, Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 18 out 23 governor’s races.
It’s clear the administration engaged in dirty tricks, including moving polling stations and printing confusing ballots. But the biggest factor may have been opposition disillusionment.
The Caracas-based financial advisory firm, Torino Capital, crunched the numbers and found that fraud and malfeasance were “at best minor contributors to the opposition defeat.”
“The most important driver of the opposition’s loss appears … to be its inability to get out its voters,” the group found. Compared to the 2015 National Assembly election, opposition voter turnout fell 30 percent in this month’s race, while ruling-party turnout was modestly higher.
The electoral shock has been compounded this week amid a growing crisis within the opposition coalition known as MUD. The organization had said its governors would not agree to be sworn in before the National Constituent Assembly, or ANC, which it — and the U.S. government — consider illegitimate.
But earlier this week in a secret ceremony, four governors from one of the opposition parties, Acción Democrática, did just that. The move was seen as a betrayal by many in the MUD.
Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate and influential opposition leader, said he and his Primero Justicia party would no longer remain part of the coalition if Acción Democrática remained a member. And Leopoldo Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party has called for an emergency meeting “to consolidate our unity as it faces the dictatorship.”
The one holdout at that controversial swearing-in was Juan Pablo Guanipa of Zulia state — and on Thursday, the local council, which is controlled by the ruling party, declared his seat vacant. Maduro is threatening new elections in the oil-rich border state.
As if to capitalize on the opposition disarray, the ruling-party controlled ANC on Thursday also called for municipal elections on an unspecified date in December.
Back in Bogotá, the Supreme Court in exile was receiving the news in real-time on their cellphones. There was some debate as to whether they should issue a ruling to reinstate Guanipa.
Asked if their decisions could have an impact in Venezuela, court member Ortega said the government, the private sector and the international community were obliged to obey the rulings even if they came from a displaced court on the other side of the border.
“We are the legitimate Supreme Court,” he said. “And the decisions we take are in line with the constitution.”
But he said one of their key roles is also symbolic — to represent the idea that there is a democratic institution that still functions and speaks for the people.
“People see in us a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss