Maduro Seeks to Tame Unrest Following Venezuelan Takeover

Reuters

Seeking to cool protests and international outrage, socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Saturday the Supreme Court would review its move to annul the opposition-led congress, which critics decried as a lurch toward dictatorship.

"This controversy is over ... the constitution has won," Maduro said in a televised speech just after midnight.

He was flanked by senior officials on a specially convened state security committee that ordered the top court to reconsider its rulings.

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While Maduro, 54, sought to cast the move as the achievement of a statesman resolving a power conflict, his foes said it was a hypocritical row-back by an unpopular government that overplayed its hand.

"You can't pretend to just normalize the nation after carrying out a 'coup,'" said Julio Borges, leader of the National Assembly legislature. He publicly tore up the court rulings this week and refused to attend the security committee, which includes the heads of major institutions.

Having already shot down most congress measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court went further on Wednesday with a ruling it was taking over the legislature's functions because it was in "contempt" of the law.

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Opposition supporters holding a placard that reads, "No more dictatorship" shout slogans as they block a highway during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela March 31. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

That galvanized Venezuela's demoralized and divided opposition coalition and brought a torrent of international condemnation and concern ranging from the United Nations and European Union to most major Latin American countries.

The decision to review the Supreme Court's move—and presumably revoke the controversial ruling—may take the edge off protests. Court president Maikel Moreno was due to make an address during the morning and some local media said the tribunal had already eliminated the decision.

But a court spokesman said there was nothing official yet and its website where rulings are posted appeared to have crashed.

Maduro's opponents at home and abroad will seek to maintain the pressure. They are furious that authorities thwarted a push for a referendum to recall Maduro last year and also postponed local elections scheduled for 2016.

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Now they are calling for next year's presidential election to be brought forward and the delayed local polls to be held, confident the ruling Socialist Party would lose.

"It's time to mobilize!" student David Pernia, 29, said in western San Cristobal city, adding Venezuelans were fed up with autocratic rule and economic hardship. "Women don't have food for their children, people don't have medicines."

Foreign Pressure

On Saturday, the National Assembly planned an open-air meeting in Caracas, while South America's UNASUR bloc was to meet in Argentina with most of its members unhappy at Venezuela.

The hemispheric Organization of American States (OAS) had a special session slated for Monday in Washington.

Even before this week's events, OAS head Luis Almagro had been pushing for Venezuela's suspension, but he is unlikely to garner the two-thirds support needed in the 34-nation block despite hardening sentiment toward Maduro round the region.

Venezuela can still count on support from fellow leftist allies and other small nations grateful for subsidized oil dating from the 1999-2013 rule of late leader Hugo Chavez.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, center, attends to a meeting with ministers and other Venezuelan authorities at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela April 1. Miraflores Palace Handout/Reuters

Maduro accuses the United States of orchestrating a campaign to oust him and said he had been subject this week to a "political, media and diplomatic lynching."

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Some criticism even came from within government, with Venezuela's attorney general Luisa Ortega rebuking the court in an extremely rare show of dissent from a senior official.

"It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order," the 59-year-old said in a speech on state television on Friday.

Pockets of protesters had blocked roads, chanted slogans and waved banners saying "No To Dictatorship" around Venezuela on Friday, leading to some clashes with security forces.

Given past failures of opposition street protests, however, it is unlikely there will be mass support for a new wave. Rather, the opposition will be hoping ramped-up foreign pressure or a nudge from the powerful military may force Maduro into calling an early election.

He will be hoping to have ridden this week's storm, and indeed there is no immediate threat to his grip on power.

The former bus driver, foreign minister and self-declared "son" of Chavez, was narrowly elected president in 2013.

But his ratings have plummeted as Venezuelans struggle with an unprecedented economic crisis including food and medicine shortages plus the world's highest inflation.

Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an "economic war". The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.

The Supreme Court's move this week may have been partly motivated by financial reasons. The wording about taking over Assembly functions came in a ruling allowing Maduro to create joint oil ventures without congress' approval.

That may have its genesis in the urgent need to raise money from oil partners to pay $3 billion in bond maturities due this month, analysts and sources say.

The government, though, was probably also seeking to further disempower the opposition as it made headroads turning international opinion against Maduro.

During Chavez's rule, the socialists were proud of their electoral legitimacy after repeatedly winning votes so the increased questioning of their democratic credentials now stings and they have sought to stop some opposition leaders from traveling.

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