By Pedro Lange-Churión, guest contribution
April 1, 2017
Venezuela arrives to a destiny augured by years of authoritarian tendencies in the Bolivarian Revolution. The Venezuelan Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court of Justice) dissolved the Venezuelan National Assembly on Wednesday, arguing the assembly is in disobedience of the highest judicial body in the country and, thus, consolidating all powers in President Nicolás Maduro’s hands.
The assembly is the main legislative institution in Venezuela, the equivalent of congress or parliament in democratic countries. The opposition in the parliamentary election of December 6, 2015 dealt a major blow to Maduro’s government by winning two thirds of the votes. Far from being a monolithic right wing body, the opposition that controls the Venezuelan National Assembly is constituted by the Mesa de la Unidad (MUD), a coalition of political parties, including leftists parties as well as center to right parties . It is important to emphasize this fact, in order to undermine the simplistic and Manichean ways the media in the U.S. and elsewhere (both mainstream and alternative) reports the antagonism between the executive power and the legislative power in Venezuela, usually characterizing it as a confrontation between the left and the right, or between good and evil, depending on which side of the ideological divide one happens to be.
Be that as it may, what happened in Venezuela this last Wednesday amounts to a coup reminiscent of the infamous Fujimorazo, when in 1992 president Alberto Fujimori dissolved the Peruvian congress. Most public and official opinion in Latin America and the international community has been quick to condemn the TSJ’s affront to the rule of law it supposedly safeguards. Even Venezuela’s Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz—a prominent Chavista– openly declared today that the TSJ’s sentence violates constitutional order in the country. In light of this general indignation, it is appalling to find in the left media statements such as this:
The powers that be and the mainstream media are now rushing to say that Venezuela is now ‘a one man rule’. However, in what modern democracy can a parliament accept as voting members people who have NOT been duly elected because the voting process in their district was proven to have been grossly irregular? How can decisions taken by that parliament in which these non-elected people are recognized and participate, be in any way legitimate parliamentary decisions? …The National Assembly, ignoring and violating the Supreme Court decision that suspended these people, proceeded as if it was business as usual in the legislature. Therefore, on 28 March 2017 the Supreme Court released a ruling that it will temporarily assume the functions of the National Assembly until that body ceases to be in contempt of court, that is, until the three offending deputies are removed.
The quote comes from María Paez Víctor’s article “Fake News: Venezuela Upholds Rule of Law, But Press Calls it Dictatorship”, published in Counterpunch.org, a renowned left-wing online publication in which I myself have published in the past. The misinformation in this article is frankly appalling and it is either the result of willful naiveté or Machiavellian manipulation of information motivated by ideological fervor. However, the author touches inadvertently on two seminal and related elements of this political drama: the deputies in the assembly and the TSJ. The three “offending deputies” alluded in Paez’ article are Nirma Guarulla, Julio Ygarza and Romel Guzamana. They ran for the opposition in the 2015 parliamentary elections, representing the Amazona state, a region in the southwest region of the country with a large indigenous population. What Paez fails to address is why are these deputies so controversial.
The MUD won 112 sits in the Assembly. This number constitutes two thirds of the 167 sits in the legislative body, which gives the opposition a majority known in Venezuela as a “qualified majority.” Knock three sits and the opposition has a simple majority. Although the three representatives were ratified by the Venezuelan electoral panel (CNE), twenty four days after the election, on December 30, 2015, the TSJ alleged the election of these deputies was fraudulent and sentenced that their presence in the assembly constituted a “desacato” (disobedience) of the TSJ and therefore annulled the legality of the whole assembly. According to article 200 in the Venezuelan constitution, any elected deputy, once ratified by the electoral panel, enjoys parliamentary immunity for the period for which he or she was elected. Even when suspected of crime or electoral fraud, a deputy can still exercise his or her parliamentary responsibilities until legal proceedings–such as prosecution in a court of law–are initiated. The TSJ, however, never initiated formal investigations or legal proceedings against these elected officials; therefore, the assembly, in July 2016, restituted the three Amazona deputies to their sits, triggering again the TSJ’s sentence of disobedience. The constitutional illegality of the TSJ’s sentence notwithstanding, in January 2017, the Amazona’s deputies withdrew from the assembly, mainly to curtail the TSJ’s push to nullify the assembly, but also as a gesture of good faith, while the dialogue between the government and the opposition took place, a dialogue mediated by international actors such as the Vatican and ex-presidents Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), Martín Torrijos (Panama) and Leonel Fernández (R. Dominicana). But the dialogue ended abruptly and the TSJ’s sentence of disobedience against the assembly prevailed, a clear sign, no doubt, of Maduro’s need to keep political conflict alive. So, the assembly was in disobedience even when it was not.
Why was a “qualified majority” so threatening to Maduro’s regime? Because with two thirds of the seats, the assembly could effectively pass crucial laws and reforms, such as constitutional reforms, electoral referenda and–following appropriate legal procedures and investigations– removal of TSJ magistrates associated with illegal acts or appointed illegaly.
There is the rub: the constitutive illegality of the Venezuelan TSJ.
Paez’ article eludes the fact that the TSJ–the institution that according to her “upholds the rule of law” in Venezuela–has been illegally constituted shortly after the parliamentary elections of December 6, 2015. Arguably, the actual coup had already taken place on December 25, 2017, when Nicolás Maduro, licking his wounds from the electoral defeat, arbitrarily appointed thirteen TSJ magistrates loyal to his regime. He moved quickly to have the still-Chavista assembly expediently ratify his magistrates (the new elected members would assume power on January 6, 2016). Think of the thorny process to appoint and ratify a Supreme Court Judge in the very imperfect democracy in the U.S.
That many of the magistrates Maduro appointed are not fit for the office they hold, since they do not fulfill the basic requirements stipulated by the constitution to become TSJ magistrates is a fact easily corroborated by a simple internet search. To mention the most prominent case, consider the very president of the TSJ, Maikel Moreno. As a former member of the political police in Venezuela, Moreno was accused and convicted for the killing of a young man in 1987. He was also accused and found guilty in 1989 of killing Rubén Gil Márquez in a gunfire exchange in Caracas. His relation to the Banda de los Enanos (Gang of Dwarfs), a criminal organization implicated in judicial corruption and drug trafficking has become evident. That Maikel Moreno is not in jail but presides over the TSJ, Venezuela’s highest court, is a tragic metaphor of a country where the rule of law is a travesty, a country besieged by widespread impunity and ghastly numbers of homicides, 28.000 last year alone.
The assembly has become the stone in Nicolás Maduro’s shoe. In only two years it has uncovered multiple and scandalous cases of widespread corruption: the “briefcase”contracts for various infrastructure works which were never built; the $98 millions in bribes paid to Venezuelan high-ranking officials; the web of corruption that has turned Venezuela into a narco-state, where the Vice President, Tarek el Aissami is identified as a prominent drug trafficker, with millions of assets frozen in the U.S. (ironically, the regime’s imperial nemesis). No wonder, then, Maduro’s regime has wanted to crush the Venezuelan National Assembly from the moment the opposition won the parliamentary elections.
The latest TSJ sentence is the symbolic conclusion of a coup initiated in December 2015 by the arbitrary appointment of magistrates, a coup foretold by these recent events:
May 2016: Maduro and the electoral panel (only constituted by Chavista members) obstructed calls for a referendum to revoke the president, a referendum contemplated by the constitution and held once by ex-president Hugo Chávez. All required signatures were gathered by voters against all kinds of official sabotage and intimidation. The hopes for a referendum ended with an announcement from the government simply stating that the referendum would not be held.
December 2016: Maduro, arbitrarily and without consultation, suspended regional elections to be held in December 2016. He was well aware the official party (PSUV) was to lose almost all states in the country to candidates from the opposition. Between December 2016 and the TSJ’s fateful sentence, Maduro’s government has led a campaign of intimidation, imprisoning dissenters without due process and cutting the signal to international news agencies like CNN and other news chanels. Beyond the the worth of these corporative news organizations, his move to censor news media is a clear blow to freedom of the press and one more example of his autocratic tendencies.
March 29, 2017: The TSJ finally dissolved the Venezuelan National Assembly, dissolving as well parliamentary immunity. Consequently, more political prisoners and more repression looms in the immediate political horizon of Venezuela, a prospect that worsens the plight of a country already mired in rampant crime, critical food shortages and a nearly total scarcity of medicines.
Rumors insinuate that all this has been a hoax. Fearing international pressure, Maduro will wake up tomorrow to rebuke the TSJ for its sentence against the assembly and thus project himself as a guardian of the checks and balances so crucial to maintaining democratic stability. Nothing surprises anymore in the bizarre reality of Venezuela’s dystopia; his regime is desperate to remain in power as the only way to avert imminent indictments for serious crimes of corruption and violations of human rights.
The silence and the obtuseness of the left in gauging Venezuela’s predicament and the opportunistic and demagogic way right-wing governments in Latin America and Europe use Venezuela’s example to promote their agendas add insult to injury. In the meantime, Venezuelans continue to spiral down–many hungry and sick– into the hell unleashed by Hugo Chávez’ once hopeful socialist utopia.
Today, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice backpedaled, reversing its March 29 sentence dissolving the Venezuelan National Assembly. More importantly, in a surprising turn of events, Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz—a prominent Chavista– openly declared on Friday that the TSJ’s sentence against the Venezuelan National Assembly violated constitutional order in the country, corroborating the international clamor that condemned the TSJ sentence as a coup. I believe Ortega Diaz’ motivation to speak out against the TSJ sentence was genuine and shows a divide within the Chavista ranks in government. To be sure, she is not acting alone and it is very likely that many government and military officials will exert pressure on Maduro’s government to uphold the rule of law, at the very least in the forthcoming presidential elections in December 2018. Why now and not before when most Venezuelans were demanding a constitutional referendum to revoke Maduro’s presidency? Because now, more than ever, there is a confluence of forces exerting pressure on the Venezuelan government: international pressure from neighboring countries and the OAS (Organization of American States); economic stagnation, including the debacle of the oil industry, forcing the oil-rich nation to import oil from Brasil and Spain; and the unending social unrest brought about by rampant crime, and scarcity of medicines and basic foods. This sudden reversal is unprecedented and has wounded Maduro’s government. The internal rift in government evidenced by Ortega Diaz’ declarations seems to begin to burst at the seams. This, along with a re-energized opposition, might be the first signs that, finally, the tide is turning against Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez’ failed twenty-first century socialism.
Pedro Lange-Churion is a professor at the University of San Francisco, California, where he teaches comparative literature, film and urban studies, with an emphasis on critical theory.