Venezuela’s democracy still broken, says opposition



CARACAS Venezuela’s democracy remains broken despite a U-turn by the pro-government Supreme Court on its takeover of congress, the opposition said on Sunday, seeking the removal of judges on the OPEC nation’s top tribunal.

The court’s ruling last week that it was taking over functions of the opposition-led National Assembly triggered international condemnation and brought accusations that President Nicolas Maduro had become a dictator.

At the behest of the government, the Supreme Court eliminated the offending rulings on Saturday.

But Maduro opponents said no one should believe that move meant democracy had been restored in the nation of 30 million people with the world’s largest oil reserves.

“Despite a supposed retraction by the government after creating a ‘coup d’etat,’ and apart from the clarification by the Supreme Court, the coup persists,” lawmaker Juan Matheus said on behalf of the opposition.

“The rupture of the constitutional order continues,” he added at a news conference inside the legislative body, flanked by pro-opposition legal and constitutional experts.

Opposition lawmakers plan to begin proceedings on Tuesday to try to remove Supreme Court judges whom they accuse of acting on the whim of the ruling Socialists.

But that move would almost certainly be only symbolic.

Since the opposition won a majority in congress in late 2015, the court has issued a raft of rulings backing Maduro and overturning most of the assembly’s measures, meaning legislators remain effectively powerless.

Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013, said any constitutional controversy is over after he convened a special security committee over the weekend that instructed the Supreme Court to rectify.

He has sought to portray himself as a statesman above a conflict between institutions, but critics said he and the ruling Socialist Party were pulling the strings on judicial bodies stuffed with stalwarts.

Stung by the international outcry, including an unprecedented wave of statements from around Latin America, Maduro alleged he is the victim of a U.S.-led smear campaign intended to lay the groundwork for a coup against him.

“The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela demands the end of harassment and aggression against the country,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement overnight.

OAS DEBATES VENEZUELA

Maduro’s far more popular predecessor Chavez, who ruled Venezuela from 1999-2013 before dying of cancer, was briefly toppled in a 2002 but came back 36 hours later when supporters poured onto the streets and military factions came to his aid.

Critics said it is not only the sidelining of an elected body, but also the jailing of scores of opponents, postponement of local elections last year and thwarting of a referendum on Maduro that evidence Venezuela’s democratic erosion.

Socialist Party officials, who were proud of the legitimacy bestowed by constant election wins under Chavez, have detailed justifications for all those actions, saying opponents have broken the law and used fraud in the 2016 referendum drive.

While attention often focuses on the headline-grabbing polemics between opposition and government, analysts believe any potential near-term change may come instead from ruptures within the administration or a nudge from the powerful military.

Foreign pressure is mounting too.

Under Chavez, Venezuela led a resurgent leftist bloc in Latin America, but shifts to the right in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Paraguay have changed that dynamic.

The Organization of American States (OAS), whose head Luis Almagro is a hate figure for Maduro’s government and wants it suspended from the bloc, was due to meet on Monday to debate Venezuela.

The week’s events have seen instability re-emerge on the streets of Venezuela, with pockets of protesters clashing with security forces who have fired teargas several times.

There appears to be little appetite, however, within the opposition for renewed mass rallies which have failed time and time again during the nearly two-decade rule of the socialists.

The opposition’s main demand is for the next presidential election, slated for December 2018, to be brought forward.

Maduro, a former bus driver, foreign minister and self-declared “son” of Chavez, was elected with around 50 percent approval ratings, but have seen those plummet during an economic crisis.

Basic foods and medicines are often scarce, inflation is the highest in the world and there are long lines at many shops.

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.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Mary Milliken, Phil Berlowitz and Meredith Mazzilli)

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