Venezuela's highest court has stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its legislative duties, a sign the government is intent on consolidating power even as the country slips further into chaos, and crime and violence reach unprecedented levels.*
Venezuela's Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia - TSJ) announced on March 29 that it has taken over the National Assembly's responsibilities. The court declared the Assembly to be in "contempt" last December because it had sworn in three representatives from the states of Amazonas who were accused of voter fraud.
"While the situation persists of contempt and the invalidity of the National Assembly's actions, this Constitutional Court will guarantee that the parliamentary responsibilities be exercised by the Court or the organ that it chooses, in order to preserve the rule of law," the announcement reads.
Opposition lawmakers sharply criticized the move, saying it is another indication of President Nicolás Maduro's intention to undermine the country's democratic foundations.
"This [is an] unconstitutional decision that we reject ... [and it] is another step in the dismantling of Venezuela's democracy," the coalition of opposition groups known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable said in a statement, according to Reuters.
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The TSJ's controversial decision came one day after the Organization of American States (OAS) convened a meeting to discuss potential solutions to the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. The meeting was held at the request of 18 member states, and came just days after OAS President Luis Almagro wrote a searing indictment of the Maduro administration.
"The rule of law is not in force in Venezuela. It has been eliminated by a judicial branch completely controlled by the executive branch," Almagro said in the March 14 report (pdf). "Today in Venezuela, no citizen has the possibility of exercising their rights. If the government wants to incarcerate them, it does so. If it wants to torture them, it tortures them ... The citizens have been left completely at the mercy of an authoritative regime that denies their most basic rights."
The OAS meeting did not result in any concrete resolutions, but an editorial in The New York Times said it was nonetheless "deeply embarrassing to Venezuela."
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The Maduro administration is fortifying its control over all branches of government, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the government is unable to maintain order. Chronic shortages have left pantry shelves bare and medicine cabinets empty, while runaway inflation has turned the currency into something to be weighed rather than counted.
As Venezuela's economic crisis grinds on, the government's failures are no less apparent on the security front. The number of common crimes reported to the authorities rose 400 percent between 2014 and 2015, and criminal groups known as "megabandas" have become larger and more organized. Venezuela's homicide rate, consistently one of the highest in Latin America, continues to climb. Growing frustration over the rise in crime and general lawlessness can be seen in the huge jump in reported cases of mob lynchings last year.
The government's heavy-handed response to the security crisis has only exacerbated it. Human rights groups say an anti-crime campaign launched in July 2015, has led to widespread human rights violations and extrajudicial killings. Maduro announced a new package of security measures in January that included arming civilians, a tacit admission that the crackdown had failed.
"Only the people can save the people," the president said.
The people disagree. They are fleeing the country in record numbers.
Meanwhile, officials have essentially abdicated responsibility of running the country's prisons to criminal bosses known as "pranes," which has led to flare-ups of violence inside the jails. Clashes between rival pranes preceded the recent discovery of a mass grave believed to hold the remains of over 100 people at a prison in the northern state of Guarico.
The government's ineptitude has been compounded by widespread corruption. An Associated Press report from last December found that the military, long suspected of having deep ties to the country's cocaine trade, has turned to food trafficking while much of the population goes hungry. Officials have also used import schemes to siphon off billions of dollars from the treasury at a time when the government is nearly bankrupt.
As Venezuela comes apart at the seams, it appears the Maduro administration believes the best way to maintain its hold on power is to usurp it from one of the few institutions left to challenge its authority.
The timing of the TSJ ruling was probably not coincidental. Venezuela has made a habit of thumbing its nose at the international community when it takes a public stance against it. The most striking example came last August, when the US government unsealed an indictment against a former top Venezuelan official on drug-related charges. The next day, President Maduro named the blacklisted official as his new interior minister.
OAS report from March 14:
* Shortly after the publication of this article, the Supreme Court reversed its decision. Our analysis of that new development can be found at this link. The article above appears as it was originally published.