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Venezuela’s Supreme Court reverses move to gut congress amid 'coup' claims

AFP archive

In a dramatic week in Venezuela, the pro-government Supreme Court on Saturday revoked its controversial annulment of the opposition-led congress amid international condemnation and protests against President Nicolas Maduro.


"This controversy is over ... the constitution has won," Socialist Maduro said in a televised speech just after midnight local time to a specially convened state security committee that ordered the top court to reconsider its rulings.

The court said in a ruling published on its website that it was revoking a March 29 decision to take over legislative powers from the National Assembly, a move opponents had branded a "coup d'etat."

It also revoked an earlier ruling that stripped lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution and ended emergency security powers it had conferred on Maduro in the crisis.

The Supreme Court duly erased the two controversial judgments during the morning, the information minister said.

The U-turn is viewed by many as an effort to defuse growing anger, protests and ‘coup’ claims that have spread like wildfire on social media.

The opposition said it was a hypocritical move by an unpopular government that overplayed its hand.

However, Maduro, 54, sought to cast it as a statesman-like move in resolving a conflict.


"You can't pretend to just normalise the nation after carrying out a 'coup,'" said Julio Borges, leader of the National Assembly legislature. Borges publicly tore up the court rulings this week and refused to attend the security committee, which includes the heads of major institutions.

Having already shot down most congressional measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court went further on Wednesday with a ruling it was taking over the legislature's functions because it was in "contempt" of the law.

That galvanised Venezuela's demoralised and divided opposition coalition and brought a torrent of international condemnation and concern ranging from the United Nations and European Union to most major Latin American countries.


The Supreme Court's flip-flop may take the edge off protests, but Maduro's opponents at home and abroad will seek to maintain the pressure. They are furious that authorities thwarted a push for a referendum to recall Maduro last year and also postponed local elections scheduled for 2016.

Now they are calling for next year's presidential election to be brought forward and the delayed local polls to be held, confident the ruling Socialist Party will lose.

"It's time to mobilise!" student David Pernia, 29, said in western San Cristobal city, adding Venezuelans were fed up with autocratic rule and economic hardship. "Women don't have food for their children, people don't have medicines."

Foreign pressure

On Saturday, the National Assembly planned an open-air meeting in Caracas, while South America's UNASUR bloc was to meet in Argentina with most of its members unhappy at Venezuela.

The hemispheric Organization of American States (OAS) had a special session slated for Monday in Washington.

Even before this week's events, OAS head Luis Almagro had been pushing for Venezuela's suspension, but he is unlikely to garner the two-thirds support needed in the 34-nation block despite hardening sentiment towards Maduro round the region.

Some regional allies

However, Venezuela can still count on support from fellow leftist allies and some small nations grateful for the subsidised oil dating from the 1999-2013 rule of late leader Hugo Chavez.

Maduro accuses the United States of orchestrating a campaign to oust him and said he had been subject this week to a "political, media and diplomatic lynching".

Yet in a rare show of dissent from a senior official, Venezuela’s powerful attorney general Luisa Ortega -- a long-tem ally of Maduro -- rebuked the court on Friday.

“It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order,” the 59-year-old said in a speech on state television. “It’s my obligation to express my great concern to the country.”

'No to dictatorship'

Venezuelan National Assembly president Freddy Guevara said on Twitter that the “coup” was unacceptable to the people and joined calls for protests on Saturday morning.

Pockets of protesters had blocked roads, chanted slogans and waved banners saying "No To Dictatorship" around Venezuela on Friday, leading to some clashes with security forces.

Given past failures of opposition street protests though, it is unlikely this will turn into mass affirmative action. Rather, the opposition will be hoping ramped-up foreign pressure or a nudge from the powerful military may force Maduro into calling an early election.

He will be hoping to have ridden out this week's storm and feel there is no immediate threat to his hold on power.

No food, medicine and sky high inflation

Maduro, a former bus driver and self-declared “son” of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected president in 2013.

But his ratings have plummeted as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines and what is thought to be the world’s highest inflation.

Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an “economic war”. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.

The Supreme Court's move this week may have been partly motivated by financial reasons. The wording about taking over Assembly functions came in a ruling which would have specifically allowed Maduro to create joint oil ventures without congress' approval.

$3 billion in bond maturities due

The reasoning behind this might be the urgent need to raise money from oil partners to pay $3 billion in bond maturities due this month, analysts and sources say.

The government, though, was probably also seeking to further disempower the opposition as it made headroads turning international opinion against Maduro.

During Chavez's rule, the socialists were proud of their electoral legitimacy after repeatedly winning votes, so the increased questioning of their democratic credentials has shocked the party leadership who are now floundering. They have even sought to stop some opposition leaders from travelling.


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