April 1, 2017 / 4:54 AM / 6 months ago

Venezuela seeks to cool outrage over court power grab

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s pro-government Supreme Court revoked its takeover of the opposition-led Congress on Saturday after it drew international condemnation and protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

“This controversy is over,” Maduro said just after midnight at a specially convened state security committee.

The committee ordered the top court to reconsider Wednesday’s court ruling, which effectively nullified the legislature and brought accusations the ruling Socialist Party was creating a dictatorship.

The tribunal duly erased two controversial judgments and its president, Maikel Moreno, met with both foreign envoys and journalists to explain the decision, insisting there had never been any intention to strip the National Assembly of its powers.

Maduro, 54, who had faced dissent even within government ranks over the Supreme Court’s move, sought to cast developments as the achievement of a statesman resolving a power conflict beneath him. But foes said it was a hypocritical row-back by an unpopular government that overplayed its hand in a power grab.

“You can’t pretend to just normalize the nation after carrying out a ‘coup,'” said Julio Borges, leader of the legislature.

Borges publicly tore up the court rulings this week and refused to attend the overnight security committee, whose members include the heads of major institutions.

He led an open-air meeting of the National Assembly in a Caracas square on Saturday.

Having already shot down most congressional measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the Supreme Court went further with its Wednesday decision. It said it was taking over the legislature’s role because it was in “contempt” of the law.

TEAR GAS AND PEPPER SPRAY

Although scores of dissidents have been detained during Maduro’s four-year rule and the National Assembly stripped of power anyway in practice, the court’s move was arguably the most explicitly anti-democratic measure.

It galvanized Venezuela’s demoralized and divided opposition coalition and sparked international condemnation and concern from the United Nations and European Union, as well as the United States and many neighboring countries.

The Supreme Court’s flip-flop may take the edge off protests but 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 postponed local elections scheduled for 2016.

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.

Hundreds of opposition supporters marched in Caracas on Saturday. Police dispersed some with tear gas as residents banged pots and pans to support the demonstrators.

Gaby Arellano, deputy of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties (MUD), clashes with national guards during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela April 1, 2017 REUTERS/Marco Bello

One opposition lawmaker said he was attacked three times by police using pepper spray. “Their violence does not stop us,” said Miguel Pizarro, of the Justice First party.

In western San Cristobal, a hotbed of opposition support, about 80 people also marched with whistles and banners reading “Down with the dictatorship!”

“The Supreme Court is controlled by idiots. What they did is a crime, there was no justification, and now Nicolas Maduro backs off like a child,” said pensioner Libia Zambrano, 77.

Also on Saturday, South America’s MERCOSUR bloc met in Argentina with most of its members unhappy at Venezuela.

The hemispheric Organization of American States had a special session scheduled for Monday in Washington.

Slideshow (11 Images)

MADURO DECRIES “LYNCHING”

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.”

Some criticism even came from within government, with 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,” she said in a speech on state television on Friday.

Given past failures of opposition street protests, it is unlikely there will be mass support for a new wave.

Rather, opposition activists have said they hope ramped-up foreign pressure or a nudge from the powerful military may force Maduro’s hand into bringing forward a presidential vote.

“Venezuela’s grave situation remains the same,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said, calling on the government to free jailed activists, allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela, call elections and restore autonomy to congress.

Maduro, a former bus driver, foreign minister and self-declared “son” of late president and populist firebrand Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected president in 2013. His ratings have plummeted as Venezuelans struggle with an unprecedented economic crisis, including food and medicine shortages and 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 conditions. The wording about taking over Assembly functions came in a ruling allowing Maduro to create joint oil ventures without congress’ approval.

The OPEC nation urgently needs to raise money from oil partners to pay $3 billion in bond maturities due this month, analysts and sources say.

Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Eyanir Chinea and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Editing by Bill Trott and Tom Brown

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