By Diego Oré and Corina Pons
Venezuelan opposition leaders accused President Nicolas Maduro of being a “dictator” and perpetrating a “coup” on Thursday after the pro-government Supreme Court took over the functions of Congress.
Amid international anxiety, Peru’s conservative government withdrew its ambassador from Caracas after what it termed a rupture of democracy in the socialist-ruled OPEC nation.
The Supreme Court had already annulled most National Assembly decisions since the opposition won a legislative majority in late 2015 due to voter fury over an unprecedented economic crisis.
Then late on Wednesday, the court explicitly stated it was assuming the legislature’s role in a ruling authorizing Maduro to create oil joint ventures without the previously mandated congressional approval.
“As long as the situation of contempt in the National Assembly continues, this constitutional chamber guarantees congressional functions will be exercised by this chamber or another chosen organ,” the court said in its ruling.
The contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though these legislators no longer sit, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case properly.
Critics of Maduro called the contempt charge an excuse for the president to consolidate power and muzzle the opposition, as his popularity plummets amid widespread disgust over a severe recession, hyperinflation and acute shortages of food and medicine.
Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister, was narrowly elected in 2013 to replace late leftist President Hugo Chavez.
Leaders of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition renewed their demand for early presidential elections and accused Maduro of duplicating Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori’s notorious 1992 closure of Congress.
“Nicolas Maduro has carried out a ‘coup d’etat’ ... this is a dictatorship,” said National Assembly President Julio Borges, before tearing up a copy of the Supreme Court ruling at a news conference in the gardens of the legislature.
“This is trash from people who have kidnapped the constitution, rights and freedom ofVenezuelans ... The National Assembly does not recognize the Supreme Court.”
The opposition promised new street protests starting from Saturday - but that tactic has failed in the past despite marches that have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters.
Last year, the opposition pushed for a referendum to recall Maduro and force a new presidential election, but authorities thwarted them and also postponed local electoral races that were supposed to have been held in 2016.
Maduro’s term in office ends in January 2019.
“If the international community stays firm, demanding elections, we are sure the government will have to turn back,” another opposition leader Henrique Capriles said.
“We insist on a democratic solution.”
Spooked by the opposition’s warning that investment deals bypassing Congress would not be valid, foreign oil companies were closely following the political showdown.
As Venezuela tries to raise funds for bond payments and a reeling economy, it has sought to sell stakes in oil fields.
State oil company PDVSA recently offered Russia’s Rosneft a stake in the Petrolia oil joint venture, sources with knowledge of the proposal told Reuters.
“We want to make perfectly clear to all the oil companies that any strategic alliance (that did not go through Congress) is null,” Borges said on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Eyanir Chinea, Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by W Simon and Tom Brown)