On March 14, 2017, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro published a comprehensive report on the Venezuela crisis, stating that the Venezuelan government has breached its obligations under the Democratic Charter. The report outlines previous efforts to promote a dialogue between the government and the opposition, which were unable to deliver concrete results, calls for the release of political prisoners, highlights abuses committed by security forces, and describes the humanitarian crisis that is affecting thousands of Venezuelans. It also includes a detailed account of Supreme Court rulings that have endorsed rights-violating measures by the government and undermined the National Assembly’s powers. The report calls on the Venezuelan government to set a date for elections within 30 days, and argues that not doing so opens the door to Venezuela’s suspension from the OAS. (Almagro’s first report, from May 2016, is available here).
On March 27, Delcy Rodríguez, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, spoke at the OAS Permanent Council, per request of the Venezuelan government. She accused the OAS and Almagro of interfering with Venezuela’s internal affairs, and Almagro of working for the US government and being a “liar” and a “traitor.” Rodríguez said the debate on Venezuela’s compliance with the Democratic Charter was a “campaign to destabilize Venezuela” and threatened the government would adopt “severe actions” if the “aggressions” continued.
That day, the Venezuelan Supreme Court issued a statement rejecting Almagro’s report, supporting the government’s foreign policy, and calling on the government to protect national sovereignty and consider proposing Almagro’s removal to the OAS General Assembly.
On March 28, the OAS Permanent Council held a meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela. The Venezuelan representative tried, with the support of a handful of allies (including Nicaragua and Bolivia), to stop the meeting. He argued that debating the Venezuelan situation without the government’s consent amounts to interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs, violating the country’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, 20 member states voted to move forward and delivered a message to the Venezuelan government that was loud and clear: The ongoing economic, political, and humanitarian crisis is undermining human rights and their democracy.
That day, back in Venezuela, the Supreme Court ruled that a statement approved days earlier by the opposition majority in the National Assembly, supporting the OAS debate, constituted “actions that run counter to [Venezuela’s] independence and national sovereignty.” The court ruled that the legislature’s statement may constitute treason and warned that the legislators responsible would not enjoy parliamentary immunity. It ordered the president to adopt “economic, military, criminal, administrative, political, juridical, and social” measures that “he deems pertinent and necessary to avoid a state of commotion.” These are broad enough to include almost anything, but the court explicitly authorized President Maduro to modify criminal laws, including the Code of Military Justice, noting that “military crimes may be being committed.”
On March 29, the Venezuelan Supreme Court adopted a second ruling allowing the government to create joint ventures with private investors in the oil sector without congressional approval. Critically as part of the ruling, the court argued that the National Assembly was in contempt of the court’s prior decisions, including those stripping it of its powers. At the end of the ruling, the court effectively shut down Congress, the only key government institution that remained independent of executive control, announcing that it would assume all legislative powers itself or choose some other institution to delegate them to.
The international reaction to these rulings was very strong. Almagro said the rulings undermined the legislature, which had been elected by popular vote, and many governments in the region criticized the move, some who withdrew their ambassadors or called them back to the capitals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Venezuela to preserve the separation of powers, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated that the rulings were equivalent to annulling the popular vote by which legislators were chosen.
On March 31, in a rare statement of dissent, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said that the two most recent Supreme Court rulings “constituted a rupture of constitutional order.”
In response to Ortega Díaz’s statement, President Nicolás Maduro convoked a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the “discrepancy” between the attorney general and the Supreme Court. After midnight, Vice President Tarek El Aissami read a statement adopted by the council that “exhorted” the Supreme Court to “revise” the rulings to “maintain institutional stability and a balance of powers.” Maduro soon after said the “controversy” had been “resolved.”
Hours later, the Supreme Court backtracked “in response to the National Security Council’s exhortation,” the court said. But in practice, it only reversed key provisions in the most recent rulings: the broad language that it would take over all legislative powers, and the decision to lift parliamentary immunity of opposition legislators. Every other ruling it has adopted undermining the legislature’s powers since the opposition majority took over the National Assembly in January 2016 remains in effect. This means that every single law adopted by the Assembly that affects government’s interests and was overturned by the court remains invalid, every power granted to the government—including the one to sign oil deals without congressional approval decided in the last controversial ruling—remains in place, and the Supreme Court still considers legislators in contempt. There is also no reason to believe the court will not continue to strike down every new law that is passed.
The retractions, however, did not ease the international pressure. On the contrary:
On April 1, members of the Mercosur regional trade bloc—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay— issued a joint statement in which they declared there had been a “rupture of democratic order” in Venezuela. Citing Mercosur agreements that protect fundamental rights and democracy, they urged Venezuela to ensure effective separation of powers, respect human rights, carry out elections, and free political prisoners.
After an attempt by Bolivia to suspend another OAS Permanent Council meeting to discuss the situation in Venezuela, a meeting in which 23 member states participated took place on April 3. Nineteen states signed a resolution that, for the first time, expressed “grave concern regarding the unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order” in Venezuela, stated that the Supreme Court’s revisions did not ensure a full restoration of democratic order, and decided to continue monitoring the situation in Venezuela, opening the door to convene a ministerial meeting. There were four abstentions, and no one voted against the resolution.
Meanwhile, despite government efforts to stop demonstrations, the opposition and ordinary Venezuelan citizens have taken to the streets to voice their discontent with the situation, including the Supreme Court rulings, a recent decision by the Comptroller General’s Office to disqualify opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski from running for office for 15 years, and ongoing problems such as insecurity and shortages of food and medicine. According to local sources, they have been met with excessive use of force, including at least five cases where young men appear to have been killed by security forces, and indiscriminate use of teargas, including throwing teargas bombs into medical facilities and from a helicopter into the crowd. The Venezuelan Penal Forum, a local group that provides legal support to detainees, reported that 470 people were detained between April 4-14, including 168 who were released before being brought before a judge. Other organizations have informed about the detention of journalists and press workers who were covering the protests, and of cases in which their work equipment and material was confiscated by members of security forces and alleged armed groups of civilians.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have reached a breaking point over the country’s humanitarian and political crisis poured into the streets all over the country on April 19. Security forces used force and teargas against the anti-government demonstrators. Journalists covering the protests said that security forces harassed them. The government took two cable channels that reported on the protests off the air. More than 500 people were detained nation-wide on April 19, reaching a total more than 1,000 detainees since early April. Three people were killed on April 19, bringing the total number of people dead in protests in April to nine. A second large, anti-government demonstration on April 20 was met with more tear gas and arrests.