Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro regime continued lashing out after it was hit with punishing economic sanctions earlier this month, charging three opposition lawmakers with treason and other crimes.
But the country’s leadership stopped short of dissolving the National Assembly — the Venezuelan equivalent of Congress — or calling early legislative elections as some had feared.
On Monday, the country’s Supreme Court — dominated by ruling party judges — accused three opposition congressmen of treason, conspiracy and rebellion, among other charges.
Hours later, the National Constituent Assembly — also controlled by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela — stripped the lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity, a prelude to their being jailed.
The moves come after Washington on Aug. 5 rolled out aggressive new sanctions that block U.S. and foreign companies from dealing with the Venezuelan government. Although the sanctions provide exemptions for food, medicine, clothing and humanitarian aid, the Maduro regime says they will lead to even more hardship and hunger in the beleaguered nation. And the regime blames the opposition-controlled assembly of supporting the move.
On Sunday, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the United States and more than 50 other nations consider the country’s sole, legitimate leader, warned that the National Constituent Assembly, or ANC, was preparing to dissolve the National Assembly —considered the last bastion of representative democracy in the country.
But the combative body stopped short of doing that. ANC President Diosdado Cabello said he didn’t need to dissolve the National Assembly.
“It has already been eliminated; nobody cares,” he said. “They approve things between themselves and then don’t follow through with them, then they blame us? No way.”
But Cabello accused the congressmen of breaking the law by supporting the United States’ “illegal” sanctions.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “If you violate the law and the constitution, you’re going to face justice.”
Washington and others say Maduro has turned the ANC and the courts into political bludgeons to attack his enemies.
This year alone, at least 17 opposition lawmakers have been slapped with charges.
While Guaidó has also had his parliamentary immunity stripped and has been accused of rebellion, the regime has stopped short of arresting him, although it has moved against his chief of staff and other allies.
“Any attack against the [National Assembly] is an attack against democracy, the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela said on Twitter. “The National Assembly is the only democratic and legitimate institution in Venezuela and it represents the hopes and aspirations of all Venezuelans against a tyrannical regime.”
The three lawmakers named by the courts were Juan Pablo García Canales and José Ángel Guerra Brito of the MUD opposition coalition, and Tomás Guanipa Villalobos of the First Justice party.
“The ANC is illegal and unconstitutional and has no authority to strip parliamentary authority from any congressman,” Guanipa wrote on Twitter shortly after the vote. That the Supreme Court “would hand down a sentence asking the ANC to expressly move against deputies is another demonstration of the dictatorship we are living under in Venezuela.”
The move against the deputies wasn’t surprising. And many were expecting more dramatic measures after Maduro and the armed forces said over the weekend that those who supported the Trump administration sanctions should be held accountable.
Daniel Erikson, a former White House/State Department advisor on Latin America in the Obama administration, said he wasn’t surprised that Maduro had backed down from his threat. And it wasn’t clear how much of an impact that move would have had anyway.
“Since neither Juan Guaidó nor the United States consider Maduro to be the constitutional president, it is not clear why they would consider such a decision to be either constitutionally valid or politically sustainable,” he said. “While the United States and the National Assembly have both urged Maduro to abandon power and make way for new elections, not only has he ignored these calls, he actually seems to be making a bid for expanding his power.”
Venezuela’s opposition captured the National Assembly in 2015, only to see its authority undermined. In March 2017, the Supreme Court tried to absorb all congressional functions, but backed down amid an international outcry. Months later, Maduro created the ANC, which was supposed to create a new constitution but has instead acted as a legislative chamber.
The National Assembly is scheduled to hold new elections in December 2020, but it’s far from clear if it can hold on that long.
“We can call for elections whenever we want,” Cabello said. “We don’t need authorization from anyone.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this article.