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An Ominous Opening for Venezuela’s New Parliament

As Venezuela's victorious opposition enters parliament, it's clear that there's trouble ahead.

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The building that houses Venezuela’s single-chamber legislature, the National Assembly, is a small, gold-domed capitol built in the late nineteenth century. The hall where the debates take place is just big enough to fit the 163 legislators who were sworn in on Tuesday for a five-year term. Following a landslide win last December, a large majority of them belong to the opposition.

But 45 minutes after taking their oaths, the pro-government minority decided the quarters were too cramped, and promptly left the building. (Oddly, lawmakers from the ruling party hadn’t found anything objectionable about the chamber while they were still in the majority.)

The excuse was an alleged breach in the rules governing the debate, but it was the overall atmosphere that forced them to go for fresh air. For the first time in the 17 years since the late Hugo Chávez swept into power, the opposition has firm control of one of the branches of government. This proved too much for the chavista legislators to handle, and their walkout foreshadows the tensions ahead.

The ceremony itself was part pageantry, part Venezuelan soap opera. The building was surrounded by three rings of military personnel who briefly blocked opposition legislators’ access to their new workplace. Several Metro stations around the capitol were closed to the public. Chavista paramilitary gangs had threatened to block access to the building in order to “protect the Revolution.”

Once inside, the new majority quickly began enacting symbolic changes. One of the first was to take down giant pictures of Chávez and of President Nicolás Maduro that had presided over the main debate hall since the former’s death and the latter’s subsequent election.

The opposition also opened the doors of the assembly to dozens of independent journalists, who had been barred from the legislature for years. In a scene few Venezuelans are accustomed to, one of them asked the unsuspecting First Lady (and elected legislator) Cilia Flores a question about two of her nephews, who are facing drug charges in a U.S. jail. Like other chavistas, who never take questions from independent media outlets, Flores seemed perplexed by the journalist’s gall, refusing to answer while fixing him with a malevolent glare.

The incoming president of the assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, was respectful of his colleagues in the minority, giving each side their turn. This was a striking departure from previous practice. In the previous chavista-dominated legislature, some opposition legislators were physically assaulted, others arbitrarily deprived of their parliamentary immunity. On several occasions, parliamentary leaders stripped opposition members of their speaking rights.

Ramos, a bookish 73-year-old and one of the few Venezuelan politicians with roots in the pre-Chavez political era, struck a conciliatory tone. He urged lawmakers to bring the country together and find solutions to pressing economic problems. But he also vowed to push the government to implement urgent reforms.

The government is in no mood for dialogue. In the last few weeks, it has stacked Venezuela’s top court with party loyalists. These new judges promptly moved to trim the opposition’s two-thirds majority by blocking the swearing-in of three legislators pending the resolution of an election dispute in the Southern state of Amazonas. (The deputies in question did not attend yesterday, and it is unclear what consequences this will have on the opposition’s ability to exercise its supermajority) The court’s ruling was based on shaky evidence, as demonstrated by the fact that even the chavista-controlled election commission certified the two-thirds majority. However this particular conflict is resolved, efforts by government-friendly judges to undermine its opponents will continue.

Moreover, on Monday, the government stripped the incoming National Assembly of any oversight over the Central Bank, taking away its power to nominate candidates to the bank’s board and to force directors to reveal economic or financial information. Crucially, the government also gave the Central Bank freedom to finance the executive branch, thus allowing Maduro to bypass the legislature to fund his massive budget deficit.

Despite all this, the opposition is determined to press ahead. It has pledged to pass an amnesty law that will free political prisoners. It has also vowed to cut Maduro’s term short via some sort of referendum in case the government does not cooperate. The chavista courts will likely have something to say about all of this.

A clash between the two forces seems inevitable. The legislature can pass all the laws it wants, but the institutions who implement them – the courts and the executive branch – are all firmly in chavista hands.

This means that Venezuela is in the throes of a full-blown constitutional crisis. Nobody can predict how it will play out, but if history is any guide, the military will play an important role in the outcome.

In the meantime, the country’s economy is in freefall. As the two sides bicker, Venezuela suffers from the world’s deepest recession and its highest inflation rate. The price of oil, the country’s top export, is tanking. And the Maduro administration has no idea what to do.

Watching Venezuela is seldom boring, and the swearing-in of the new National Assembly proved it. But the entertaining theater makes it easy to forget that this is a country of 30 million people living through an economic maelstrom, a president with no answers, and now, a divided government. The showdown in the National Assembly suggests the Venezuelan tragedy has a few more acts before it finds its resolution.

In the photo, opposition legislators argue with pro-government legislators during the new Venezuelan parliament’s swearing-in ceremony in Caracas on January 5, 2016.

Photo credit: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @juannagel

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