Venezuela has two supreme courts these days — one in Caracas, its members appointed by President Nicolás Maduro, and another one in exile.
The collapsing South American country also has two opposing congresses. And it has two chief prosecutors, with the one in exile, Luisa Ortega Diaz, holding a hearing last week in neighboring Colombia calling for Maduro's impeachment.
The growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has sent nearly one million Venezuelans out of the country in the last two years, according to the International Organization for Migration, including many government officials. Some analysts and Venezuela experts believe this new group of ex-leaders from the Maduro administration — some inside the country, some outside — might even be able to form the basis for a parallel government capable of challenging the regime.
“They are already halfway there,” said Asdrúbal Aguiar, a Venezuelan lawyer and former government minister now in New York.
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Venezuela has been coming under increasing pressure to restore democracy for years, often from big players such as the United States, which recently declared that Maduro heads “a sort of pariah government," Aguiar said.
An external government group that wins any sort of real recognition from the international community could prove to be significant in the power struggle between the opposition and the embattled socialist president. “If something like this takes place, it would be a stab right through the heart of the Maduro regime," said Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, executive director of the Miami-based Inter-American Institute for Democracy.
The big stumbling block, of course, is Maduro, who continues to keep a tight grasp on power through the military. But earlier this month, Ortega and the exiled Supreme Court — admittedly, the group has no enforcement power — announced they were going forward with a "trial" of Maduro on charges that he was involved in a huge corruption scheme with the construction giant Odebrecht that cost the nation billions of dollars.
On Tuesday, the opposition-controlled National Assembly — which is largely ignored by Maduro though its members continue to meet in Venezuela — declared they were stripping Maduro of his presidential powers so he could be tried by the Supreme Court in exile. In normal times, that decision would mean that he could no longer be the country’s head of state.
“According to the Constitution, the president is automatically removed from office," the president of the exiled court, Miguel Ángel Martín, told el Nuevo Herald from Bogotá. “And judicially, once we are formally notified by the National Assembly of their decision, we will initiate the evidence examination phase, then the hearings and then the decision phase."
The Maduro administration sent a letter to the Colombian government, protesting what it called a show trial by "usurpers" in the country's congressional building.
Although Maduro has chosen to ignore the exiled court, the court's pronouncement could carry weight abroad, since the U.S. and other key members of the international community have already declared that they recognize only the authority of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, not the Maduro-controlled Constituent Assembly.
In the past, exile governments have formed in response to the illegal occupation of a country of origin, with the most memorable example being Charles de Gaulle’s during the Nazi occupation of France. And they can win international recognition.
In Venezuela's case, an internationally recognized exile government could rupture important connections of the regime to the international community in settings such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations, Sánchez, a former Bolivian minister, said.
Having its legitimacy challenged in an open way could also endanger any chance the regime has of finding new financial assistance from friendly governments, as it has been desperately seeking to do in order to sustain itself in the midst of the country’s economic collapse and the sanctions imposed by the U.S., Canada and Europe, analysts said.
But it could also lessen fears that a post-Maduro power vacuum might lead to a civil war in the country, the analysts added.
Maduro, Odebrecht and millions in bribes
For now, the exiled justices and Ortega — who for years was a key member of the Maduro regime before she turned against the administration — claim that their only aim is to defend the country’s institutions and enforce its laws.
The unorthodox measures are necessary because “in Venezuela, there are no longer any institutions. They have been destroyed from within,” Ortega said from Bogotá, where she now resides after fleeing the country to avoid imminent arrest.
Martin, the president of the exiled court, said the other Supreme Court is a de facto Maduro operation. He and his fellow magistrates, he said, are simply fulfilling their duties, even though they were forced to leave the country.
Hearing the case against Maduro has been possible only through technology, with proceedings conducted via video conferences from Bogotá Miami, Panama City and Santiago de Chile, where Ortega and the justices now reside.
Ortega says she has ample evidence that Maduro took millions of dollars in bribes to grant Brazilian construction company Odebrecht massive public contracts worth at least $1.7 billion.
The public work projects were never constructed, Martin said during last week’s hearing, which was held in the Colombian Senate chambers.
In one recorded instance, Maduro personally asked Odebrecht for a $50 million bribe, but the Brazilian firm ended up paying only $35 million.
Although Maduro has so far treated the case as a non-event, the exiled officials insist that it could have serious repercussions, if taken seriously by the international community. For instance, a pronouncement issued last week by the exiled Supreme Tribunal, asked for Maduro to be placed on INTERPOL’s arrest list.
The doubled-up government institutions start with the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which was elected in December 2015 with an overwhelming majority of the vote.
Fearing that the new congress would be the source of his downfall, Maduro took steps to remove some of its constitutional powers, and finally displaced it last year by setting up an all-powerful Constituent Assembly, through a sham election held in July.
That move triggered criticism from around the world about the Venezuelan regime.
Speaking in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, talked about how Maduro’s National Constituent Assembly had robbed congress of its powers. “It would be as if a parallel senate were created and we were no longer paid salaries or had staff — often no longer allowed to meet and our laws were no longer given the force of law,” he said. “But the National Assembly is there and we need to support them; we need to make clear that they are the legitimate representatives of the Venezuelan people, the only legitimate government today.”
Many Venezuelan scholars have said Venezuela formally became a dictatorship once the Constituent Assembly began its operations.
The seeds that grew into a parallel Supreme Tribunal of Justice — the Supreme Court — were also sown after the 2015 congressional election. Seeking additional protection, the Maduro regime unconstitutionally appointed new magistrates that would protect the leader from the actions of opposition deputies.
The National Assembly declared those appointments illegal and proceeded to swear in new Supreme Court magistrates. Maduro’s reaction was swift. He declared the justices were criminals and ordered their arrest, forcing all of them into exile except two. One of the two — Angel Zerpa — was arrested and is under supervised probation pending trial in Venezuela.
Ortega’s turn to flee the country came in August after Maduro had the Constituent Assembly fire her, a move that once again usurped the powers of the National Assembly, the only arm of the government allowed that power under the Constitution. Also in exile are a large number of opposition mayors who have been accused of treason by the regime.
Some of them had been jailed, including former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who escaped from house arrest last year.
Legitimacy in exile?
Historically, establishing an exile government requires three steps, according to Sanchez, the former Bolivian minister.
First, there needs to be a national crisis that would challenge the legitimacy of the government that occupies the country, he said, noting that Maduro is already being accused of being the head of a government controlled by criminal and foreign interests.
Then a recognized group must declare the existence of a government in exile, he said.
But the most important part is when "the international community recognizes someone else in its place," he said.
“If such government manages to obtain international recognition, its very existence could be a game changer," Sanchez added.