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Back from the brink? Venezuela reverses its congressional ‘coup’ but tensions remain

Opposition members take part in a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 31, 2017. Venezuelans have been thrust into a new round of political turbulence after the government-stacked Supreme Court gutted congress of its last vestiges of power, drawing widespread condemnation from foreign governments and sparking protests in the capital.
Opposition members take part in a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 31, 2017. Venezuelans have been thrust into a new round of political turbulence after the government-stacked Supreme Court gutted congress of its last vestiges of power, drawing widespread condemnation from foreign governments and sparking protests in the capital. AP

CUENCA, ECUADOR 

Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Saturday reversed a controversial decision that had stripped congress of all its powers, sparked fears of a coup and brought an anvil of international pressure down on the beleaguered socialist administration.

President Nicolás Maduro praised the court’s decision and said the “controversy had been overcome,” but the whiplash changes left many in the region uneasy — particularly since the theoretically independent court seemed to be following the president’s orders.

During an emergency meeting of the Mercosur bloc of countries Saturday, the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay issued a statement asking Venezuela to follow its own constitution and guarantee “the effective separation of powers.”

Opposition governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles went further, saying the court couldn’t undo the damage by issuing “clarifications.”

“You can’t resolve this coup with a ‘clarification’,” he wrote on Twitter. “Nothing is resolved.”

The firestorm began Wednesday, when the Supreme Court — stacked with ruling-party figures — declared that it was assuming all legislative functions under the premise that the opposition-controlled congress was illegitimate for being in contempt of previous court decisions.

Read More: Chief prosecutor rebukes Venezuela court power-grab

The move raised alarms around the region as it drew comparisons to former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s 1992 decision to dissolve that nation’s congress. The Organization of American States has scheduled an emergency meeting Monday, several Latin American countries recalled their ambassadors and the opposition took to the streets.

The decision even opened divisions within Maduro’s usually lock-step administration, with cabinet members and high officials saying the move was a violation of the constitution.

Read More: Opposition cries ‘coup’ as court muzzles congress

The backlash prompted Maduro in a late-night speech to ask the courts to review their decision in order to “maintain constitutional stability.”

On Saturday, the Supreme Court complied, publishing two “clarifications” of its rulings.

Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno in a press conference Saturday reaffirmed that the court would not strip the National Assembly of its functions or deny legislators their parliamentary immunity.

However, the courts still don’t recognize the legitimacy of congress, and the administration is likely to keep ignoring lawmakers as its done since the opposition took control of the body in 2016. 

Wednesday’s contentious decision that sparked the troubles was embedded in a narrower ruling that allows the executive to sign joint-venture petroleum contracts without congressional approval.

By all accounts, the cash-strapped government needs foreign financing to make interest payments and stay afloat, and congress had threatened to block new debt. According to local media, that part of the ruling was maintained. (The Supreme Court’s website where the decisions were initially published, was offline Saturday.)

Opposition leaders celebrated their victory, transforming their planned morning protest into an outdoor political rally welcoming the move. Hundreds of people joined them at their gathering in a wealthy area of eastern Caracas.

Several high-profile opposition lawmakers cut international trips short to participate in the impromptu celebration.

But the tensions are unlikely to subside any time soon. Lawmakers have threatened to retaliate by encouraging street protests and demanding the impeachment of judges who participated in the ruling.

Late Friday, Maduro suggested the entire mess was part of a larger plot, saying the country was the victim of a “political, media and diplomatic lynching.”

“Dark forces,” he said, “want to get their hands on our Fatherland.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.

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