Venezuelans have been thrust into a new round of political turbulence after the government-stacked Supreme Court gutted the Venezuelan Congress of its last vestiges of power, drawing widespread condemnation from foreign governments and sparking calls for protests.
Governments across Latin America on Thursday condemned the power grab, with the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) likening it to a “self-inflicted coup” by socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s “regime” against the opposition-controlled congress.
In a surprise decision, the magistrates late on Wednesday ruled that as long as lawmakers remain in contempt of past rulings, the high court, or an institution it designates, can assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the Venezuelan National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for about a year-and-a-half.
The ruling and one earlier in the week limiting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution capped a feud that began when the long-marginalized opposition in December 2015 won control of the legislature by a landslide and then mounted a campaign to force Maduro from office.
The leftist leader, who has seen his approval ratings plunge amid widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation, responded by relying on the Venezuelan Supreme Court to unseat several lawmakers and then routinely nullify all legislation voted there.
“This isn’t any old sentence. It marks a point of no return on the road to dictatorship,” Venezuelan National Assembly Vice President Freddy Guevara said.
The Peruvian government immediately recalled its ambassador in protest of what it called “a flagrant break in the democratic order.”
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who has been reluctant to openly criticize Maduro, said she was deeply worried by the ruling and ordered her ambassador to return home for consultations.
The US Department of State reiterated its call for Maduro to free political prisoners and hold immediate elections to resolve the crisis, saying the court decision to “usurp” the National Assembly’s powers represented a “serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”
OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro called for an emergency meeting of the group, which earlier this week held two sessions on Venezuela.
That meeting ended with 20 governments led by the US and Mexico voicing deep concern about the Venezuelan situation, but no concrete actions to hold Maduro accountable.
Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente Leon said that while the ruling completely “pulverizes the separation of powers,” Venezuela long ago stopped operating like a normal democracy with a clear rule of law and independent institutions.
He saw the government hardening its position in the face of mounting economic woes and international pressure, further dashing hopes for dialogue and an electoral solution.
“It’s perfectly predictable that the government is going to keep radicalizing,” he said.
The main opposition alliance said it was holding around-the-clock meetings to determine its next steps, but some leaders were already calling for protests as early as today.
Meanwhile, some hard-liners called for the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela and an important crutch for Maduro, to intervene.
While the capital, Caracas, was generally quiet on Thursday, as night fell a few people in wealthier eastern Caracas gathered on balconies and in front of homes banging pots and pans, and shouting “Get out Maduro.”
“The 30 million Venezuelans need to take to the streets and confront the dictatorship,” said Daniela Tani, a coordinator for one of Venezuela’s opposition groups who joined about 50 people briefly blocking one of major roadways in Caracas.
The protesters waved flags and stopped traffic until being surrounded by police trying to clear the street.
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