The Venezuelan political crisis has rapidly evolved into a constitutional disaster, even as the Supreme Court seemed to be in damage control mode a day after its decision to dissolve the National Assembly unleashed a wave of local and international rejection. The very attempt to correct the subversion of the constitution itself was enough proof that the government had lost the capacity of pretending to follow the rule of law; a circumstance that many believe to have been preceded by a string of rulings with which the highest court has targeted the parliament with the intention to diminish its role, strengthening the Executive in the purpose to consolidate the revolution.
In the midst of a renewed intent from the OAS to address the Venezuelan situation, the government rejected Secretary General Almagro’s resumption of talks in the regional forum, with a previous meeting with the Foreign Relations Minister Rodriguez as an advance of what would be a belligerent encounter the next day with the new alternate Permanent Representative Moncada, who engaged in a heated confrontation, resulting in the suspension of the session without a vote. This was the background for the Supreme Court’s decision that would throw the regime’s carefully constructed argument of an undisputable democracy under the bus.
The immediate domestic and global backlash follows months of caveats from politicians, members of parliament and NGO’s over the increasing blockage of the legislative branch through the judicialization of politics, with the Supreme Court as the Executive’s instrument in the assurance of power. Since the opposition won the majority of seats in the unicameral parliament in a landslide election, the government was not shy of their intention to make it difficult for them to exercise the majority. The first, and pivotal argument for the government to obstruct the opposition’s majority, is the accusation of electoral fraud made against three indigenous members of parliament from the state of Amazonas. The decision by the parliament to approve their incorporation, and have the legislators take an Oath, prompted a quick response from the administration through the Supreme Court decision considering the legislative body to be in contempt until the three representatives were disembodied.
That was just the beginning of a string of rulings the Supreme Court had been issuing, undermining the opposition in its capacity to legislate. As the conflict worsened, the government had less hurdles to make agreements regarding the economy, principally the oil business, that otherwise would require the National Assembly to approve. The situation escalated as the deadline for a $2.8 bn bonds payment due in April approached, and the National Assembly reminded Mr. Maduro that it would not approve any agreement to compromise oil business assets, and without their authorization, any deal would be regarded as void.
There is a widespread perception that the urgency for cash to cover the payments accelerated the court’s ruling, considering that the talks in the OAS had restarted, to strip the members of parliament from their immunity, following by the unstated dissolution of the National Assembly, the timing was the most unfortunate one, and perhaps the very reason for such a backlash. Immediately after the two sentences were published, shockwaves in rejection to the rulings flooded social media -the main source of information in a country that lacks of free press- as well as international media outlets that openly criticized the move, branding it as a coup and characterizing the government as increasingly authoritarian.
Even as this attempt to wipe out the Opposition was not totally unexpected, the government precipitated the situation without apparently considering the impact it would have internally, and only two days after the sentences were made public, the country’s Attorney General voiced rejection to the highest court’s rulings, considering them to be a rupture of the constitutional order. The statement was followed by disbelief, distrust and astonishment with the confirmation of fractures within the political regime. The President had been silent, as were the rest of the branches of government, but on Saturday, the announcement for a meeting of the National Security Council pretended to ease the apparent entanglement, as the administration put it, it was just an impasse between two branches.
This setback did not change the fact that close to 50 rulings disavowing the parliament’s authority are still in place –and were not even mentioned- as well as the ruling regarding the Executive’s power to negotiate without the National Assembly’s intervention. Therefore, the government’s image has been severely damaged, but not its ability to make agreements, which was the whole point of the Supreme Court’s ruling this past week.
Even if the government pretends to backtrack from this episode, the balance is negative, not only because they had to amend the sentences, but also because in doing so, they are again violating the law, showing the absence of independence of the Judicial branch. It was not a good week for the government, during almost two decades their effort was to build a flawless political model, and it took Mr. Maduro less than five years to throw away an enormous political capital, that in the absence of high oil revenue and charisma, has left chavismo with very little options to survive other than blatant authoritarianism.
The Opposition is in an excellent situation, where the government cannot keep defending itself as a victim while exercising an increasing anti-democratic behavior. Their actions need to be focused in underscoring the authoritarian nature of the administration. The steps to restore the constitutional order must consider all the rulings that contradict the independence of the National Assembly, until the Supreme Court does not comply with the Constitution, the conditions that characterize a breach in its ruling are in force and must be corrected immediately.