CARACAS, Venezuela – Security forces violently repressed protests that broke out in Venezuela’s capital on Friday after the Supreme Court gutted the opposition-controlled Congress of its last vestiges of power, drawing widespread condemnation from foreign countries and even triggering a rebuke from the nation’s normally pro-government chief prosecutor.
Governments across Latin America condemned the power grab, which the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) likened to a “self-inflicted coup” by socialist President Nicolás Maduro. The United Nations’ top human rights official expressed “grave concern” and called on the high court to reverse its decision.
In Caracas, national guardsmen in riot gear fired buckshot and swung batons at a small group of students who gathered outside the Supreme Court. Several protesters were arrested and some journalists covering the demonstration had their cameras seized by the police before the group reassembled elsewhere.
Residents of eastern Caracas, the site of weeks of anti-government unrest in 2014, awoke to an eerie calm, while the main opposition alliance called for a rally Saturday.
The Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that as long as lawmakers remained in contempt of court rulings that nullified all legislation passed by the chamber, the high court, or an institution it designates, can assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for nearly a year and a half.
Maduro has yet to comment on the move but there were signs that at least some top officials were in disagreement.
In a surprise pronouncement, Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz, normally a government loyalist, said it was her “unavoidable historical duty” as a Venezuelan citizen and the nation’s top judicial authority to denounce what she called the Supreme Court’s “rupture” of the constitutional order.
“We call for reflection, so that the democratic path can be retaken,” she said to the loud applause of several aides gathered around her.
The ruling and another earlier in the week limiting lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution capped a feud that began when the long-marginalized opposition won control of the legislature by a landslide in December 2015 and then mounted a campaign to force Maduro from office. The leftist leader, who has seen his approval ratings plunge amid widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation, responded by relying on the Supreme Court to unseat several lawmakers and then routinely nullify all legislation voted there.
“What we’ve lived the last few hours has to be called what it is: a coup and an attempt to instill a dictatorship in Venezuela,” National Assembly President Julio Borges said at a news conference Friday in which he announced that lawmakers had appealed the ruling to Ortega Díaz’s office.
The decision triggered a frenzy of diplomatic activity, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where foreign ministers of the Mercosur trade bloc were to gather Saturday to discuss the crisis, to Washington, where the OAS secretary general called for an emergency meeting.
Peru’s government recalled its ambassador in protest of what it called “a flagrant break in the democratic order.” And the presidents of Chile and Colombia, who have been reluctant to openly criticize Maduro, said they were deeply worried by the ruling and also ordered their ambassadors to return home for consultations.
The U.S. State Department reiterated its call for Maduro to free political prisoners and hold immediate elections to resolve the crisis, saying the decision to “usurp” the National Assembly’s powers represented a “serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”
The OAS has already held two angry sessions on Venezuela earlier this week. Those meetings ended with 20 governments led by the U.S. and Mexico voicing deep concern about the Venezuelan situation but no concrete actions to hold Maduro accountable.
Luis Vicente León, a Caracas-based pollster, said that while the ruling completely “pulverizes the separation of powers,” Venezuela had long ago stopped operating like a normal democracy with a clear rule of law and independent institutions. He predicted the government would harden its position in the face of growing economic woes and international pressure, further dashing hopes for dialogue and an electoral solution.
“It’s perfectly predictable that the government is going to keep radicalizing,” he said.
Some hard-liners in the opposition called for the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, to intervene. So far the armed forces, which has seen its power expand dramatically under Maduro, has remained silent.
Despite the sporadic flare-ups Friday it wasn’t clear if critics of the government were in the mood for another street fight after past attempts fizzled or ended in bloodshed with little to show. Weeks of unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 deaths and dozens of arrests, while a mass protest last September was followed by authorities a few days later cancelling a recall petition campaign seeking to force Maduro from office before his term ends in 2019.
What could be different this time is that Venezuela’s economy is on its knees and regional governments, as well as the Trump administration, seem far more engaged in seeking a solution to the political and increasingly humanitarian crisis that threatens to spill beyond the country’s borders.
Borges said Friday that while on previous occasions lawmakers in Venezuela have “tired their fingers” making calls to raise awareness in the world of what was occurring in Venezuela, the last two days have been the “complete opposite.”
The world’s leaders have been calling “not to ask what is happening but to express solidarity,” he said.
The Supreme Court’s ruling stemmed from Congress’ refusal to authorize Venezuela’s state-run oil company to form joint ventures with private companies, including Russia’s Rosneft. The government said the ruling was not seeking to supplant Congress but rather to guarantee the rule of law as long as legislators remain obstructionist by refusing to sign off on a budget and key economic decisions.
Maduro kept out of the debate, appearing twice Thursday on state TV but leaving it to his aides to denounce his critics. He also received pledges from anti-American allies such as Russia, which urged external actors to refrain from interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
“It’s untrue that a coup has taken place in Venezuela,” the government said in a statement Thursday. “On the contrary, the institutions have taken corrective legal action to stop the distractive, coup-like actions of an opposition that has declared itself openly in contempt of the decisions made by the republic’s top court.”