As Venezuela's high court backtracks on power grab, is it still a de facto dictatorship?

Venezuela's highest court ruled to effectively shut down the country’s congress earlier this week, leaving President Nicolas Maduro's party in complete control.After a reversal of that decision, is the international community still worried that democracy has collapsed in Venezuela?

Initial ruling came just 1 day after the OAS called meeting to address state of country's endangered democracy

An opposition member waves a Venezuelan flag during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, March 30, 2017. (Associated Press)

From jailing political opponents, to cracking down on the press, to annulling elections, Venezuela's socialist government has spent years chipping away at democratic checks and balances. But this week's Supreme Court ruling that temporarily shut down the country's legislature may have finally convinced much of the international community that Venezuela's democracy has collapsed.

In plain language, it is a dictatorship.- Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch

From Mexico to Argentina, governments that once avoided criticizing oil-rich Venezuela under the near-sacred Latin American tradition of non-intervention expressed shock and concern. Peru ordered the withdrawal of its ambassador from Caracas, as did Costa Rica, which also called on the Organization of American States, or OAS, to sanction Venezuela.

Luis Almagro, head of the 34-member OAS, accused Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of carrying out a "self-inflicted coup d'état" after the Supreme Court, which is stacked with his allies, declared that it would take over legislative functions from the Venezuelan National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition.

The OAS leader called it "the final blows with which the regime subverts the constitutional order of the country and finishes off democracy."

But on Saturday, the Supreme Court revoked its controversial decision amid international condemnation and growing criticism at home. The move came after a late-night speech Friday from Maduro, who asked for a review of the earlier ruling following an emergency meeting of the state security committee.

Opposition leaders have dismissed the flip-flop as too little, too late, and encouraged Venezuelans to continue demonstrations..

"I believe we are facing a turning point," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for Human Rights Watch's Americas division, speaking before Saturday's reversal. "Venezuela can no longer be called a democratic government. In plain language, it is a dictatorship."

Opposition lawmaker Jose Dionisio Brito, left, holds up a copy of Venezuela's Constitution as he argues with Maduro supporters during a protest outside of the general prosecutor's office in Caracas. (Associated Press)

The outcry was especially loud because Venezuela's National Assembly is the last remaining government institution not controlled by the ruling Socialist Party. That party was founded by the late Hugo Chavez who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999. Taking advantage of high oil prices in the mid-2000s, the socialists ramped up spending on health, education and housing, and dominated Venezuelan politics.

But amid a severe economic crisis that analysts blame on government mismanagement and slumping petroleum prices, the opposition scored a landslide victory in legislative elections in December 2015 and took control of the National Assembly. The opposition had hoped to use its new powers to free political prisoners, improve the economy and enact other reforms.

Instead, the Supreme Court has annulled nearly every law the National Assembly has passed. It also removed the legislature's budget oversight duties and endorsed Maduro's efforts to sidestep lawmakers by issuing decrees under a state of emergency.

As a result, Wednesday night's court ruling stripping the National Assembly of its functions formalized what had already largely taken place. The decision was based on an earlier ruling that declared the National Assembly in contempt due to unproven allegations of voter fraud in the 2015 legislative elections.

Still, the optics for the Maduro government were terrible.

'A rupture of constitutional order'

The initial ruling came just one day after a special OAS meeting to address the endangered state of Venezuela's democracy. Even Chavez, the iconic godfather of the revolution, declared in 2010 that shutting down the National Assembly would amount to a coup. What's more, wiping out the legislative branch — via presidential fiat, judicial decrees or soldiers and tanks in the streets — has been the hallmark of dictatorships around the world.

"This was in the worst tradition of martial law and the right-wing dictatorships of South America in the 1970s and '80s," said opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus. "It was in the worst tradition of the communist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain."

Many government officials had vociferously defended the shutdown. Aristobulo Isturiz, a former vice-president and the current minister of social movements, said the opposition was using the court ruling to call for foreign intervention in Venezuela.

But in a startling break with the party line, Attorney General Luisa Ortega — usually a staunch defender of Maduro — slammed the court's initial decision, calling it "a rupture of constitutional order."

Even before this week's ruling, Maduro, above, has been sidestepping lawmakers by issuing decrees under a state of emergency. (Associated Press)

Still, the reaction among average Venezuelans has been muted, with just a handful of people taking to the streets. Pockets of protests popped up in the capital Friday and again beginning at dawn on Saturday, but the reversal was expected to take the edge off many of them.

One reason might be that security forces have waged a fierce crackdown on anti-government demonstrations, arresting more than 5,000 protesters over the past three years, according to the Caracas legal aid group Foro Penal.

In addition, many Venezuelans spend hours standing in lines to buy food and medicine and lack the time to protest.

Some opposition leaders have called for the Venezuelan military to step in and uphold democracy. But the top brass remains loyal to Maduro, who has provided high-ranking officers with lucrative perks, such as control over arms purchases.

Still, critics used Saturday's reversal as cause to celebrate, suggesting cracks are beginning to show in Maduro's control of the country. They are now calling for next year's presidential election to be moved up.

Other pro-democracy activists are counting on the international community — now that it is focused anew on Venezuela — to push Maduro to restore democracy and call elections that could pave the way for a new government.

"I hope that the foreign ministers of the region will deliver a clear ultimatum to the Venezuelan government," said Vivanco. "They must request the release of political prisoners, a clear calendar for free and fair elections and the re-establishment of checks and balances that are essential part of a democracy."


John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.

With files from Reuters