Last week was of the greatest importance for the future of Venezuela.
At the OAS Permanent Council meeting, called to discuss the crisis in Venezuela under the Democratic Charter, it became clear that Venezuela’s regime regional alliances have weakened. The country’s shield of oil and diplomacy, previously very effective in the inter-American system, has ever fewer adherents. However, the efforts of Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, also face a difficult test; his efforts might once again end up in another attempt at dialogue between government and opposition as an alternative to the suspension of Venezuela from that regional body.
This is how things stood when the Supreme Court took two decisions (later partially modified), which represented not a step towards but rather a leap down the path of radicalization. The first restricted and delimited the scope of parliamentary immunity, to the extent representatives could be imprisoned for their activity of opposition to the regime. The second arises from the desperate economic situation in which the government finds itself, authorizing oil industry joint ventures with Russia and accept the related financial arrangements proposed by Moscow, bypassing parliamentary approval required by the Constitution, with the aggravating factor placing all the legislative and oversight function in the hands of the Supreme Court itself, or whoever it designates.
In the face of these measures, which amounted to the dissolution of the National Assembly, there has been an energetic reaction both inside and outside Venezuela. The OAS Secretary General himself called the Supreme Court’s decision a “self-coup” on the part of the State.
This is not the first time that the growing deterioration of the real state of democracy in Venezuela has been condemned at the international level. What is completely unprecedented is the statement made by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz who said that, “The recent decisions of the Supreme Court amount to a rupture of the constitutional order”. Since the coming to power of chavismo no public official of such seniority has ever spoken out in this way. Her statement obliged President Nicolás Maduro to look for ways to distance himself from the decisions and within 24 hours the Supreme Court had modified its earlier rulings.
Ortega Diaz’ position aborted the self-coup by which Maduro sought to make himself the holder of both executive and legislative powers. And that happened because the Attorney General has the power to initiate the process for the removal of judges, with the approval of the National Assembly.
Ortega Díaz’s statement amounts to a significant crack in the regime’s judicial armour, which is based on acting in lockstep with the Supreme Court so as to give the impression of legitimacy to the authoritarianism of the Executive Branch. Furthermore, the unconditional subordination of the armed forces to the regime’s authoritarianism –with the Supreme Court as a constitutional pretext – also depends on this lockstep relationship. The Attorney General’s statement inaugurates a new trend in the political conflict in Venezuela: that of institutionally and publicly litigating the differences and internal strains of the ruling party. Respect for the autonomy of the National Assembly and the Constitution has not been fully restored (in fact dozens of Supreme Court decisions that transgress the Constitutional order remain in force), nor can it be concluded that the Supreme Court is an independent watchdog of constitutionality –in short, there is no real democracy – but for the first time a brake has been placed on Maduro’s attempt to accumulate all power in his hands. And if she carries herself on in same way this episode, the Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz could become a new institutional interlocutor in the search for solutions to the political conflict in Venezuela, and also in the process being brought forward by the OAS related to its Democratic Charter.
But that is not all. Oil is at the center of all these developments. It is well known that the Venezuelan regime has depended on two tools: oil diplomacy, exercised through Petro-Caribe and ALBA, and its financial alliance with China. The drop in oil prices plus the decline in oil production has closed off the Chinese source of financing. This is what explains the arrival of Russia on the scene as the key actor in Venezuelan oil policy.
In its insatiable quest for funding, the Maduro government has decided to create oil business joint ventures with Russia. In other words, it has started selling PDVSA to Russia. And there is an additional aggravating circumstance which has barely received a mention: Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, is the main creditor –with a 50% share guarantee – of CITGO, the PDVSA subsidiary that operates in the United States.
The government of Venezuela is therefore playing with fire. After making its commitments to China unsustainable, it has chosen to forge a closer alliance with Putin and Russia, a country right now at the heart of the American political debate as a result of its interference in the elections that led Trump to the presidency (in addition to the resistance its plans and actions have produced in the European Union). The country with which the Venezuelan regime has decided to ally itself stands accused of having used the tools of cyber-warfare to affect the presidential election in the U.S.. Putin, as the intelligence experts have pointed out, may very well have the power to compromise and even to extort Trump; raising the question of whether Russian influence could be used here in the United States or elsewhere to support Venezuela’s authoritarian rule.
These new trends in the Venezuelan political conflict have occurred in the framework of other international trends, the post-oil era (brought about by the growth of energy alternatives) with low prices for crude oil; a new inter-American coalition that is not indifferent to the fate of democracy in Venezuela; and the emergence of Russia as an unprecedented factor of influence in the Americas.
This English version of “Tendencias: Un giro sin precedentes en la crisis venezolana” was also published at The Huffington Post