Roughly a quarter of the way into a multi-hour speech last week, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro recalled a conversation he claimed to have had nine years ago with Hugo Chávez, his deceased predecessor. In Maduro’s telling, despite his electoral success, el Comandate had long harbored a secret desire to “break definitively” with the “old bourgeoisie structures of representation” that he felt distanced the government from the people. “This is a task we have still to carry out,” Maduro announced. Five days later, his government made good on that promise.
Over the past few days, tensions between the chavista government and the new opposition-dominated National Assembly, which was inaugurated last week after December’s landslide election, reached a fever pitch. On Monday, the constitutional chamber of Venezuela’s supreme court — which in over 45,000 decisions over the last dozen years has never ruled against the presidency — suspended the assembly and declared its leadership to be “in contempt” of the court’s authority.
It’s unclear what this determination means, since there is no constitutional basis for any of this. The supreme court claims that its ruling nullifies in advance any legislation the assembly might try to pass — unless the opposition acquiesces to the suspension of three of its legislators, whom the government accuses of buying votes in the remote state of Amazonas. The stakes are high, since the loss of even a single legislator could neutralize the opposition’s two-thirds supermajority, threatening its ability to reform the constitution or initiate a recall referendum against Maduro.
The road to Venezuela’s constitutional quagmire has been paved with brinksmanship from both sides of the country’s widening political chasm. Soon after the opposition’s electoral landslide, Maduro stripped the unicameral legislature of its oversight over the Central Bank and the national finances, while the outgoing assembly rushed to pack the supreme court with loyalists through an expedited, ad hoc process that had no constitutional grounding. Concurrently, Maduro called for the creation of a novel “communal parliament,” to be set up in parallel to the one he had lost. Meanwhile, the court dutifully pushed forth the suspension of the Amazonas delegates: three from the opposition and one from the ruling socialists for good measure.
The opposition, too, has upped the ante. In electing the assembly’s leadership, the smaller parties within the opposition coalition joined forces to sideline its largest member, the moderate Primero Justicia party, denying them its highest offices. The assembly’s new president, Henry Ramos Allup, is a wily and colorful holdover from the pre-Chávez era. With his trademark folksy bombast, Ramos Allup soon announced that Maduro would step down within six months, while quickly and unceremoniously disposing of the Chávez portraits and other chavista symbols that had become ubiquitous in the assembly building. Ignoring the supreme court, he swore in the suspended Amazonas delegates anyway. Such aggressive measures, while providing much-needed catharsis to many within the long-suffering opposition, risk alienating Venezuelans who dislike Maduro but haven’t quite given up on Chávez, while enraging the government and its more strident supporters.
In the immediate aftermath to Monday’s ruling the opposition waxed defiant, its leaders disputing both the court’s legitimacy and its jurisdiction over the National Assembly. But with every other branch and institution of government arrayed squarely against it, the embattled legislature stands alone, save for its overwhelming popular mandate. Behind closed doors, the standoff has exacerbated pre-existing divisions within the opposition, putting those who would force a crisis, even at the risk of being permanently sidelined should the government fail to blink, against others more disposed towards tactical retreat.
On Tuesday morning, the assembly’s scheduled session failed to take place, ostensibly due to the lack of a quorum. Later that evening, following much internal debate and backchannel communications with the executive branch, Ramos Allup announced that — by their own request — the Amazonas Three would resign from the legislature in the coming days. In backing down, the opposition has diffused a crisis that might have escalated into civil strife. But it has also set a dangerous precedent: that it’s open to being bullied. Time will tell if caution was indeed the better part of valor. (According to an opposition source who declined to be identified, the government has agreed to hold new elections to replace the three Amazonas delegates. The timing of the elections is unknown.)
Constitutional order, like oxygen, is often taken for granted until it is in short supply. Now that Venezuela’s supreme court and its legislature publicly deny each other’s legitimacy while the president touts an unelected parliament he likes better, everyone in the country seems to have become a constitutional analyst. In conversations around Caracas last week, I heard taxi drivers, retirees, and legislators alike intricately parsing the finer points of Venezuela’s constitution, one of the longest and most complicated in the world. The result is yet another layer of uncertainty to a people already burdened by soaring homicide rates, shortages of basic goods, unbridled inflation, and other revolutionary delights.
A few months ago, when an opposition victory in the December elections seemed imminent, I sat down for a chat with Luis Miquilena — the ancient Marxist who personally presided over the creation of the constitution in 1999 — to try to understand what might happen. Having long since broken with the revolution, Miquilena was downplaying the role the constitution’s design might play in what was to come. He seemed surprised I had bothered to ask.
“It doesn’t really matter what the constitution says, they’ll do whatever they want,” he told me. “My constitution has already been the most violated in Venezuela’s history. There’s no salvaging it.” In the end, he assured me, it will come down to the people rising, at which point Venezuela’s famously opaque armed forces would be forced to pick a side. “Sooner or later,” as Miquilena put it, “that’s what always happens.”