It’s been one of those days when if you bend down to tie your shoelaces, you miss an important development in Venezuela’s dawning Constitutional Crisis. The headlines:

  1. The Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino López, flanked by all the army’s top generals, speaks to the nation in full battle gear. His words say one thing, his tone another.
  2. The chairman of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, replies to the speech on the floor of the A.N. with a highly vituperative, harshly personal speech blaming Padrino López personally for the fact people hate the Armed Forces now.
  3. The Assembly approves a motion to launch a “procedure to declare the president’s political responsibility for the breakdown of constitutional order”. From the floor of the Assembly, speaker after speaker uses the shorthand “political trial” (juicio político) to refer to it.  You will search in vain in the Venezuelan constitution for the text string “political trial”: it’s not there.

Vamos por partes. 

I thought Padrino López’s speech was…a lot more equivocal than people seem to realize. Judge for yourselves:

Yes he rejects the Assembly’s exhortations for him to disobey the president’s orders and renewed his pledge of loyalty to the Commander in Chief, but then he couldn’t very well not do that unless he was going to launch a coup, could he?

Significantly, he reads out the constitution’s Article 328, which establishes the Armed Forces as apolitical and in the service of the nation rather than any political partiality. This is one of those “inconvenient articles” chavista propaganda has banished from the public sphere, so to hear a Defense Minister cite it is highly significant. But then Padrino López goes on to argue that the Commander in Chief is not “a political partiality.” He closed the whole thing with a ¡Chávez vive!, but his speech steered clear of the kind of highly divisive language that’s the hallmark of chavismo.

I would’ve thought Henry would want to be a bit more measured in his approach to a guy like Padrino López who is still widely respected in military circles…I would’ve thought wrong. 

My sense is that he was trying to signal different things to different audiences, and not doing it terribly skillfully. We in Venezuela know very well what a classic chavista speech sounds like: the torrent of insults, of extreme declarations and wild sloganeering that State Propaganda carries around the clock. Stylistically, Padrino López was poles apart from that kind of speech — and in a context like this, style is substance.

To my befuddlement, Henry Ramos Allup doesn’t seem to have picked up any of that nuance: he lit into the Defense Minister with a blistering personal attack blaming him for corruption and the fact everyone hates the Armed Forces.

Check it out:

I would’ve thought Henry would want to be a bit more measured in his approach to a guy like Padrino López who is still widely respected in military circles…I would’ve thought wrong.

Finally, the National Assembly closed its debate approving a procedure described consistently “juicio político” against Nicolás Maduro, summoning him to appear before them on Tuesday.

This is a…peculiar gambit. The standard translation for “juicio político” is “impeachment”, but it’s clear there is no such figure in the Venezuelan constitution.

At the pace this crisis is developing, who knows what could happen in the 18 hours between now and then. 

Henry Ramos Allup, who is too much of a lawyer to ignore that fact, described it as a political procedure to establish the “political responsibility” for the crisis, distinguishing a “political trial” from a criminal trial. Still, there is neither a Constitutional basis nor a clear precedent for what the Assembly just approved with regard to Maduro.

For people now vowing to re-establish the constitution’s validity, this is a…weird road to go down. You’d think now more than ever legalism would be winning the day in the opposition. Instead, the attitude seems to be “well, if you’re going to make up weird new constitutional powers for yourselves, we can play that game too.”

It’s not a positive development.

Tomorrow will be a day of protests…but at the pace this crisis is developing, who knows what could happen in the 18 hours between now and then.

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