Venezuela Nears Constitutional Crisis as Opposition Changes Tack

  • National Assembly looks to remove 13 Supreme Court judges
  • President Nicolas Maduro has threatened to abolish congress

Venezuela is heading toward a constitutional crisis to add to its economic collapse after the opposition-controlled National Assembly challenged the power of the Supreme Court that backs President Nicolas Maduro.

QuickTake Venezuela's Revolution

The National Assembly last week voted to strip 13 of 32 Supreme Court judges of their powers and said any decisions the justices participated in would be invalid. Congress now is studying the appointment of its own judges, according to congressional President Henry Ramos Allup.

Tension may ratchet up this week if Ramos Allup follows through with his call to reinstate three deputies the court had removed in January; a move that would restore the opposition’s two-thirds super-majority in congress. Since winning control of the National Assembly in December elections, the opposition had acquiesced to the Supreme Court in the hope of moving forward with legislation that included an amnesty to free political prisoners. They are now ditching that policy, after the court helped stall many of their initiatives to confront Maduro.

To read a QuickTake on Venezuela’s economic crisis, click here.

“The opposition appears to be taking a calculated risk,” Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at Torino Capital in New York, said Monday in a report. “If confrontation continues along this route, the country could end up in coming months with two Supreme Courts, each of which is recognized by one of the two opposing sides.”

Maduro’s administration is already fighting back. Diosdado Cabello, a pro-government lawmaker, said the three deputies would probably end up in jail if reinstated, adding weight to Maduro’s reiterated threats to close down the congress.

Food Riots

The clash comes a month after Venezuela saw its first major food riots in decades as frustration at shortages of everything from rice to toilet paper boiled over. Inflation is expected to reach close to 500 percent this year, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting the economy will contract 8 percent.

As the economy implodes, opposition efforts to hold a referendum to oust Maduro have stalled. The tactic of trying to work with government-installed authorities is failing, Carlos Berrizbeitia, an opposition deputy, said by phone.

“We can’t be so submissive anymore,” said Berrizbeitia, adding that he was speaking in a personal capacity and not necessarily for the opposition alliance. “Some sectors inside the opposition hadn’t wanted to confront the executive branch or the court, but as Maduro has not stopped in his attacks against the National Assembly, it was decided to advance the political agenda.”

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Maduro has threatened to abolish congress since the opposition took control of the body for the first time in 16 years, and his government last month filed a suit against the leadership of the National Assembly for usurping its powers. Cabello, a high-ranking figure in Maduro’s socialist party, had even stronger words on Saturday.

Jail Threats

“This assembly doesn’t have the authority to remove a judge much less reinstate those deputies,” Cabello said. “If those deputies accept their restitution, they’ll probably end up in jail. You guys don’t have parliamentary immunity. We’ll see who remembers them after a month in jail.”

Romel Guzamana, one of the three opposition deputies invalidated by the court in January, shrugged off Cabello’s threat and said they were planning to file harassment charges against him.

“We’ll be sworn in on Thursday, and if they arrest us, they’ll have to arrest all of the other 109 opposition deputies,” he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “If the court continues its campaign against the assembly, we’ll have to take a harsher stance. We’ll look for friends in the international community.”

Any move to dissolve the National Assembly would likely trigger opposition protests and could provide momentum for the recall referendum process the government is trying to avoid, Eurasia Group analysts Risa Grais-Targow and Agata Ciesielska wrote in a note on July 5.

“Dissolving the National Assembly would put Venezuela under further pressure from regional peers, which the government will want to avoid since it is sensitive about its perception as a democracy,” they wrote.

To read about Venezuela’s food shortages, click here.

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