Where is Venezuela's crisis headed?

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) talks to Venezuela's Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz (L) during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela April 1, 2017. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

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Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela is never dull, and the last few days have been particularly frenzied amid opposition claims of a coup, then government tirades against "imperialist" enemies, and the two sides ending up hating each other as much as ever.

After this latest spasm of chaos in the oil-rich country, and with a deep recession possibly worsening, where is Venezuela's long-running crisis headed?

Radicalization

On Saturday, the Supreme Court, which backs leftist President Nicolas Maduro, revoked two rulings from late March in which it had taken away legislative powers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly and stripped lawmakers of immunity from prosecution.

It was a rare climbdown by the president's allies. Besides drawing international opprobrium, Maduro had faced the strongest criticism ever from within his own camp. Attorney General Luisa Ortega condemned the court rulings as a "rupture of constitutional order."

Venezuelan opposition activists shout slogans during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro on April 6, 2017 in Caracas

© AFP FEDERICO PARRA

Except for the National Assembly, all other pillars of power in Venezuela are controlled by people loyal to Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez.

The opposition condemned the court rulings as a "coup" — a word echoed by many experts.

Maduro countered that his critics are "imperialists" trying to destabilize his government at the behest of the United States.

Juan Requesens Venezuela opposition protest government Maduro

REUTERS/Marco Bello

Experts say the latest developments indicate Maduro wants to show he is prepared to play rough.

"He probably wants to take two steps forward and one back. And if he is left with no choice, he will tend to radicalize and isolate himself," said analyst Luis Vicente Leon.

The fact that the attorney general criticized the court rulings hints at divisions within the Maduro camp.

"That radical (court) decision created a crack within the pro-Chavist movement, which does not tolerate dissidence," said sociologist Carlos Raul Hernandez.

Regional elections

The court's decisions gave a jolt of energy to the divided opposition, whose internal squabbles and strategic blunders have lost it part of the grassroots support it won in legislative elections in 2015.

The opposition is now seeking to revive protests to press for a change in government.

Protesters clashed with police Tuesday and Wednesday in Caracas and the western city of San Cristobal. More protests are scheduled for Thursday.

Demonstrators scuffle with security forces during an opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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Venezuela has the world's biggest oil reserves, but the collapse in energy prices has drained its revenues, prompting shortages of food, medicine and basic goods along with soaring violent crime and an inflation rate the International Monetary Fund expects will reach 1,600 percent by year-end.

"It would seem that the hard economic times are sapping turnout" at protests, said Andres Molano, of the Venezuela Observatory at Rosario University in Colombia.

Maduro has ruled out moving up the next presidential election, currently scheduled for late 2018. So attention — and pressure — will be focused on delayed gubernatorial elections that were supposed to have been held in 2016.

International pressure

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, wants to invoke an accord called the Inter-American Democratic Charter, alleging Venezuela's constitutional order is disrupted.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro participates in the Democratic Solidarity in Latin America meeting in Mexico City, on March 30, 2017

© AFP RONALDO SCHEMIDT

This would lead to diplomatic discussions and ultimately Venezuela's suspension from the Washington-based OAS.

But in an effort to save face, the government will argue that the court's climbdown proves there is separation of powers in Venezuela, said Molano.

"International pressure is going to keep up. The situation is the same as it was before or worse. The assembly is still powerless," said Elsa Cardozo, an international relations expert.

"It is likely that after what has happened there will simply be a discussion (at the OAS) and the message that this is unacceptable will be strengthened," said another expert, Mariano de Alba.

Search for resources

The National Assembly insists that any government economic deal requires its authorization.

The ruling in which the Supreme Court seized the powers of the legislature gave the government permission to form joint-venture companies with foreign money, without legislative approval.

Women carrying babies queue as they try to buy diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas, Venezuela March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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This is a crucial point: The government is looking for investment and financing for a deficit that Ecoanalitica estimates at $9 billion to $12 billion in 2017.

Things get messier because the government has a $3 billion debt payment due this month in a "context of the scrapping of the assembly, which makes it harder to obtain money," said Asdrubal Oliveros, director of Econalitica.

"The dilemma boils down to paying off debt or keeping up imports," Oliveros said.

When oil prices fell, Maduro cut imports of food, medicine, and other subsidized goods, causing acute shortages that hurt his popularity.

"The government knows it cannot win an election if it does not improve the economic climate," said Oliveros.

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