Venezuela's Top Court Has Reversed A Controversial Decision To Take Over From Congress

The opposition had proclaimed the original decision a "coup d'état."

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Saturday reversed a controversial decision it made days earlier to strip the opposition-controlled Congress of its powers.

In the original Wednesday decision, the court, which is seen as aligned with President Nicolás Maduro, decided it would take over the Congress's legislative responsibilities.

But after the original decision sparked a storm of criticism both domestically and internationally, Maduro's government late Friday urged the court to reconsider "with the aim of maintaining institutional stability and the balance of powers."

On Saturday, the court complied, announcing on its website that it had "suppressed" the decision to take over legislative responsibilities from Congress.

The court's website was later taken offline for "maintenance," but screenshots of the decision were posted online by the television station Globovision, whose owners have ties to Maduro, and the website La Patilla, which is opposed to the government.

The original Wednesday decision had been the second clash between the Supreme Court and Congress this week. As diplomats convened for a special meeting in Washington to discuss how to restore order in the South American country at the request of 18 members of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Venezuelan Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a ruling curbing lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution.

That decision was also reversed by the court on Saturday.

“We are heading toward rock bottom at maximum speed,” opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro had told BuzzFeed News of the court's decisions. “The country is sitting atop a pressure cooker.”

The Supreme Court, which has consistently supported Maduro’s administration, had said it would assume congressional duties for as long as the legislature remained “in contempt” of past court rulings. The ruling cited Congress’s reinstating last year of three opposition lawmakers the Court had banned over vote-buying accusations. (None of the three legislators are currently seated in the legislature.)

Opposition legislators called Wednesday’s ruling a “coup d'état,” saying they disavowed it and would rebel against it by continuing to carry out their work.

The political escalation comes as Venezuela confronts widespread food and medicine shortages, triple-digit inflation, a security crisis in which homicide rates appear to have increased dramatically, and a series of corruption scandals enveloping the highest echelons of government.

Maduro has blamed the country’s downward spiral on a US-led attack meant to topple his left-wing administration.

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump met with the wife of one of the country’s most high-profile political prisoners, Leopoldo López, and called on Maduro to release him “immediately.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer waved off a reporter who asked him during Thursday’s daily press briefing if he believed there was a coup d'état underway in Venezuela, directing her to the State Department for comment. “The only Supreme Court I'm focused on right now is ours,” Spicer said, referring to the fight in the US Senate to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.

But in a statement released shortly after, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, called on Venezuela to "permit the democratically elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, hold elections as soon as possible, and immediately release all political prisoners."

Maduro has blocked several opposition-led initiatives in Congress, including a drive to recall his mandate, cutting short the euphoria that enveloped Venezuela in December 2015 when the socialist government lost its legislative majority for the first time in 16 years.

“This completely takes out the rug from under the people who argue that in Venezuela there is a balance of powers and that there are checks and balances,” said Geoff Ramsey, a research associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Concerns over Venezuela’s growing troubles have deepened within the international community. The OAS floated the idea of suspending the oil-rich nation from the group this week, but left-wing governments in the region opposed it. Peru recalled its ambassador to Venezuela on Thursday. The government of Mexico had said it was "profoundly worried" about the Supreme Court's ruling.

This week, the Venezuelan Congress refused to authorize a joint venture between Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and privately owned companies. Opposition leaders said Wednesday’s ruling was Maduro’s way of clearing the way for corrupt contracts, deepening the national debt, and holding off state elections that were due in December.

Hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling was made public on Wednesday, Congress President Julio Borges held up a printed copy of it above a podium. “I want to tell you clearly what this ruling means to us,” he said, tearing it into pieces.

“It’s trash. It’s trash from those who have kidnapped the Constitution.”

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