Venezuela's Supreme Court reversed a recent decision that annulled the opposition-controlled National Assembly's legislative powers, a significant turnaround in a country where political decisions have substantial impacts on organized crime dynamics.
Venezuela's executive branch asked the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia - TSJ) on March 31 to reverse the court's March 29 ruling that had stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its legislative powers, reported RunRun.es. The court assented to the request on April 1.
Early reports seem to indicate that the reversal was only partial. According to RunRun.es, President Nicolás Maduro retains the right to create mixed public-private enterprises without the approval of the National Assembly, as well as the power to reform the country's hydrocarbons law. This was echoed by the Associated Press, which reported that the new ruling "will still allow Maduro to enter into joint oil ventures without congressional approval."
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The TSJ's earlier announcement had sparked both international and domestic criticism against what was perceived as an authoritarian move by President Maduro aimed at further consolidating his powers.
The magnitude of the now-reversed decision led some of the highest government executives, including the Attorney General Luisa Ortega and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas, to publicly voice their disapproval, according to the New York Times. These dissentions raised the possibility of an erosion of Maduro's political power due to fractures within his inner circle, reported El País.
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The TSJ's controversial decision and eventual backtracking is the latest evidence of the turmoil rocking Venezuela's political scene, amid deepening economic and security crises. But these maneuverings may also have criminal ramifications, due to the suspected involvement of many top Venezuelan politicial figures in organized crime.
In particular, the early reports indicating that the reversed Supreme Court decision does not pertain to the executive's extended powers regarding the oil industry may be of significance. Venezuela's state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) has been at the heart of accusations of widespread corruption -- specifically, that officials diverted billions of dollars from the oil company for their own personal benefit. In the latest case, in February 2017, Venezuelan authorities charged former PdVSA executive Jesús Osorio with allegedly receiving bribes in relation to government contracts worth more than $76 million dollars, reported investigative journalist Maibort Petit.
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More broadly, the unfolding of recent events clearly underlines a lack of separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. Maduro's apparent influence over the TSJ -- Venezuela's highest judicial body -- is worrying when considering the country's high levels of impunity and failing justice system.
Combined with the possibility that Maduro's grasp over the country may be loosening due to dissent within his own political camp, the lack of an impartial judiciary could facilitate the further nominations of suspected criminals to positions in the highest levels of government, a trend that is most likely an attempt by Maduro to surround himself with individuals who have as much to lose from a political turnover as the president himself.
In addition, Maduro has increasingly empowered Venezuela's military as a means of consolidating his power, for example by granting the institution full control over the country's food production and distribution network in the context of widespread food shortages. As the Associated Press documented in a December 2016 investigation, this decision led to the military's deepend involvement in food trafficking. Networks of military officials, known as the "Cartel of the Suns," are believed to control a substantial portion of the country's drug trade.
The reversal of the Supreme Court decision suggests that the Maduro government may be susceptible to strong pressure brought by domestic actors and international actors in the face of controversial decisions. But past experience suggests that this is the exception to the rule. When challenged in the past, Maduro has typically opted to thumb his nose at his opponents, rather than attempt to appease them.