- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
On Wednesday, Venezuela’s opposition censured the country’s Supreme Court judges whom they accused of carrying out a veiled coup on behalf of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Last week, Venezuela’s Supreme Court sought to assume the functions of the National Assembly, seen by many as the last stronghold of the Venezuelan opposition. Members of the opposition denounced the move as a coup; protesters took to the streets of Caracas; and even the attorney general, a long time ally of Maduro, criticized the ruling on live, state-controlled television.
Why make the ruling in the first place? Because, as Harold Trinkunas, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, explained to Foreign Policy, the Venezuelan government has a bond payment due April 12. And in order to make that bond payment, the government was hoping to strike a deal. Speculation says that that deal would be with Russian oil company Rosneft, under which Caracas would cede some assets — in Venezuela — to the Russian energy giant in lieu of cash payment.
But any new joint venture or the sale of part of any existing joint venture has to be approved by the National Assembly. The legislature won’t approve such a thing, because it is one of the precious few pieces of leverage it has over the Maduro government. And so the court tried to circumvent it.
“They tried to get the legislature out of the mix and just take unilateral action. When they find their laws inconvenient, they just change them,” Eric Farnsworth of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas said. But it went too far, apparently, even for Maduro.
On Saturday, the court reversed (much of) the ruling. “The controversy is over,” Maduro said.
Except it wasn’t.
“You can’t just pretend to normalize the nation after carrying out a coup,” lawmaker Julio Borges said at the time. And Maduro couldn’t. Thousands of protesters were still out in Caracas on Tuesday when security forces — the National Guard and national police, joined by pro-government gangs — deployed tear gas and water cannons against those in attendance.
This was different than other protests of the recent past. There was, said Farnsworth, an urgency to the protests, an indication that thousands of people saw their government meant to act like a dictatorship, with a sharp dose of repression. (Given the government’s dramatic reaction, it seems they thought so, too.)
The opposition is not only seeking to dismiss the judges who issued the ruling. They are also trying to move up the next presidential election, which is scheduled for the end of 2018. But the Maduro government does not seem inclined to acquiesce in that request.
In the meantime, Venezuela has gone from dismal to dire. The country is wracked by a scarcity of food and medicine, the worst inflation in the world, and has 82 percent of households in poverty — the very impoverished for whose benefit Maduro claims to be clinging to power.
With the country careering off a cliff, the government might be forgiven for seeking a parachute. Except Maduro and most of his top officials are wary of being held accountable for a spate of crimes they have allegedly committed while in office, making it safer to stay in — even as the economy goes south. But for Maduro, a former bus driver, heading for a ditch still seems safer than seeking a head-on collision with justice.
“The government is out of cash,” Trinkunas said, adding, “the question is, what are the costs of exiting, and what are the costs of staying on?”
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