On 6 April 2017, an ongoing political crisis brought Venezuelans into the streets to protest a move by the country’s Supreme Court to strip away the powers of Congress.
The court had ruled to hold its National Assembly in contempt and strip the body of its powers on 29 March 2017, but after strong international and domestic disapproval of the move (which has no constitutional basis) the court walked back its decision on 1 April 2017.
Venezuela is facing a severe political and economic crisis, in which the loss of oil revenue has led to hyperinflation, widespread hunger, shortages of medicine, and insecurity. Much of the country has lost faith in President Nicolas Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez.
In late 2015, opposition parties won a majority of seats in the legislature, but the country’s supreme court has ruled against them repeatedly, keeping them ineffective. The opposition, in turn, has attempted to block Maduro’s efforts to increase cash flow by unilaterally making deals with international — particularly Russian — companies.
Geoff Ramsey, a research and communications associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), explained to us that, despite the walk-back, the court will still maintain the power to approve those international deals. The opposition sees their ability to oppose them as one of their few bargaining chips in a largely "chavista" government.
On 5 April 2017, the opposition majority in the National Assembly approved a declaration that Venezuela is suffering a coup, and began the legal process of removing Supreme Court justices that they say were installed unconstitutionally.
Protestors on 6 April gathered at seven meeting places (one for each Supreme Court justice) and marched to a major highway. The hashtag #VzlaTrancaContraElGolpe, which translates to "Venezuela shuts down the coup," was the top trending on Venezuelan Twitter for most of the day as protestors uploaded videos and photos showing large crowds and police tossing canisters at them of what appeared to be tear gas:
#Caracas #VzlaTrancaContraElGolpe una batalla por la Libertad pic.twitter.com/vYPMJaeQET
— ॐ✿4NN 3L0RZ4✿ॐ (@anatelorza) April 6, 2017
The Venezuelan opposition has sought to remove Maduro from power before the 2018 presidential election. However, Ramsey explained that although about 69 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro according to a Venebarametro poll, there is no constitutional way to move up the election. The historical power of Chavismo is also on Maduro's side, Ramsey told us. Chavez took power in 2000, when many poor people, particularly in urban areas, felt ignored and cast aside by the government. Chavez changed that:
There’s still this narrative that a lot of people identify with, even if they oppose Maduro there’s this idea that he’s the elected president and is part of a political project that has defended their interests, even if its currently not doing so.
Ramsey added that there has been a tendency on the part of the United States to take a "cowboy approach" to Venezuela, which has only strengthened Maduro and pulled other politicians towards him. "Under the Obama administration, there was a push from hardliners in Congress to apply targeted sanctions to Venezuelan authorities," he told us.
However, Ramsey said, when those sanctions were implemented, the targets were often promoted, which drew them closer to Maduro and helped him consolidate his power:
If those actions taken unilaterally by U.S. it would not only make it harder for the rest of the region to play an effective role but it would raise the exit costs of Venezuelan officials when we really need to be reducing them . . . . We need to be making ways for Venezuelan officials to feel that there can be a peaceful democratic change in government without it being the end of their lives.
Venezuela was supposed to hold regional elections last year, but Maduro delayed them until 2017. The question going forward is whether the 2018 presidential election will bring a similar move. Like the Supreme Court's move to undermine the National Assembly, an election cancellation or delay could have a severe effect on Venezuela's international standing.
If elections don’t happen in 2018, any reticence to call Venezuela an authoritarian government will completely fall away.