A month into Venezuela’s latest active outbreak of street protests, it’s already hard to recall the condition MUD was in towards the middle of March: disjointed, demoralized, squabbling with CNE about ballot access, and increasingly distrusted by all but its hardest core of supporters. A month later, the political scene is entirely transformed. It might be a good time to pause and ask ourselves “how did we get here?”
How did the no-hope MUD of mid-March suddenly morph into this combative, determined people power movement? How could the sturdy, secure dictatorship of mid-March come to look so threadbare in just a few weeks.
Believe it or not, the whole thing started with a badly mishandled attempt to rewrite our Oil Law — the Ley Orgánica de Hidrocarburos. In fact, it’s an object lesson in how over-confidence can lead the powerful to miscalculate, and on how a single bad decision can snowball in ways nobody could predict.
The spark: two unconstitutional decisions
On March 28th, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal issued Decision No. 155. It accused opposition deputies to the National Assembly of Treason –yes, treason– and urged the president to crack down on them and put them in jail. Almost as an afterthought, the Assembly members were unconstitutionally stripped of their parliamentary immunity.
…protests in areas of Caracas that seemed out of their reach since 2013: government bastions that were supposed to be No-Go areas for the opposition.
The following day, the same chamber issued Decision No. 156, authorizing the President to amend Venezuela’s legislation on hydrocarbons and, again, almost as an afterthought, declaring that the National Assembly’s constitutional prerogatives would henceforth be exercised by the Constitutional Chamber or by another body that Chamber appointed to that effect. Another draconian violation of the Constitution.
While there are reasons to believe that the goal of this last sentence was to allow President Maduro to set up joint ventures in the oil industry without the authorization of the National Assembly, everyone’s attention gravitated towards the isolated paragraph that empowered the Constitutional Chamber with the constitutional competencies of the National Assembly, a paragraph that had nothing to do with the matter that was decided in sentence No. 156.
Reactions came in like a wrecking ball
These were the latest in a string of dozens Supreme Tribunal decisions intentionally designed to stymie the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s actions. They came after the flagrant violation of parliamentary immunity involved in throwing Gilbert Caro —a member of the Assembly— in jail without even charging him.
It appears that the Supreme Tribunal and the Maduro administration badly misjudged how strong the reaction to these two sentences would be.
The decisions seem to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. They came in for heavy criticism not only from MUD but also from the international community. They were even rejected by Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz, who after making one pro-government decision after another for more than a decade —even as late as during the 2014 protests— suddenly decided this was a step too far. Reading her accountability speech on VTV on March 31st declared that sentence No. 156 broke the “constitutional order.”
Luisa Ortega Díaz is responsible of many injustices and promoter of many others, so this episode should not erase all that.
Venezuela has been under the international spotlight ever since. Luisa Ortega’s speech, in particular, set in motion a chain of events that have included near daily new statements condemning the country’s authoritarian drift and, in turn, the mounting street protest agenda we’re seeing play out day by day.
The National Defense Council is summoned for wrong reasons
Ortega Díaz’s statement generated a crisis within the government. Unconfirmed reports suggest much of the military was unwilling to back these two decrees. The government needed a face-saving way out, and soon Maduro came up with one: he summoned the rarely-heard-of National Defense Council to resolve the “impasse” between the Public Ministry and the Supreme Court.
On April 1, Vice-President Tareck El Aissami read a communiqué from the Council, which included the decision “to urge the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to review decisions 155 and 156 in order to maintain institutional stability and balance of powers, through the resources contemplated in the Venezuelan legal system.”
The government, in other words, tried to undo one violation of the constitution through… another violation of the constitution. The National Defense Council has no powers to review the decisions of the Supreme Tribunal. According to article 323 of the Constitution, “el Consejo de Defensa de la Nación es el máximo órgano de consulta para la planificación y asesoramiento del Poder Público en los asuntos relacionados con la defensa integral de la Nación, su soberanía y la integridad de su espacio geográfico.” The National Defense Council is the highest consultative organ for planning and advising the Public Power as to matters relating to the overall defense of the Nation, its sovereignty and the integrity of its geographical space.
Plan Zamora is a security mobilization that involves Colectivos, Consejos Comunales, Fuerza Motorizada, public workers, organizaciones populares and CLAPs.
Neither the alleged “impasse” between the Public Ministry and the Supreme Tribunal or the sentences of the Supreme Tribunal are under this Council’s authority. What we see, instead, is just new Constitutional dibujo libre: chavismo mágico as jurisprudential authority.
The Supreme Tribunal tries to undo the harm
At a press conference on April 2nd, the full board of the Supreme Tribunal announced that sentences No. 155 and No. 156 would be revised. This in itself should be treated as an irregularity, because the procedural lapse for the Constitutional Chamber to clarify the content of these sentences had already expired.
Venezuelans had to wait until April 4th to review the clarifying sentences, but right after they had been published on the Supreme Tribunal’s web page, the page went down, for reasons nobody ever explained. Three weeks later, the page is still down, as far as we can tell.
As reported, the Supreme Tribunal’s review was very partial indeed: walking back a few of the most inflammatory aspects of the decisions, but stopping well short of overturning all of their unconstitutional features. The Constitutional Chamber, for instance, retracted the statement that it would continue to act as a de facto National Assembly… but it did not withdraw its decision to unilaterally give the president the power to alter the Oil Law, which only the Assembly can do. In other words, the decisions were “retracted”, but not really.
And so the protests began… and kept going!
This chain of events stoked the never-entirely-extinguished embers of opposition anger. They pushed the opposition’s leadership into calling for demonstrations to express their rejection of the Supreme Tribunal and the Maduro administration.
Luisa Ortega’s speech, in particular, set in motion a chain of events.
Demonstrations have been met with strong repression by the security forces. While the government continues to repeat the security forces are acting to stop acts of violence, the only protests that have been entirely peaceful have been the ones not repressed by the security forces. A large number of human rights violations have been reported, including many deaths. Seeing the unprecedented international reaction to the two decisions, MUD realized it couldn’t settle for the Supreme Tribunal’s “reviewed” decisions. MUD also demanded: general elections to be convened, the release of political prisoners, the opening of a humanitarian channel to address food and medicine shortages and respect for the constitutional autonomy of the National Assembly.
It should be noted that amid the generalized political turmoil of the last month, this year’s Holy Week was anything but holy. Even more, on April 12, political polarization arrived at the Mass of St. Paul’s Nazarene celebrated by Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino: while El Nacional reported that “government backers attacked opposition members in the Basilica of St. Teresa,” government funded Alba Ciudad reported “Cardinal Urosa and opposition leaders politicized the Mass of St. Paul’s Nazarene seeking to cause disorder.”
Plan Zamora is a GO!
On the eve of the very large opposition demonstrations on April 19th, President Maduro decided to activate the so-called Plan Zamora in its ‘green phase’. Nobody entirely knew what he was talking about. Maduro claimed the plan had been presented to him by the Armed Force as a way to maintain internal order.
What exactly Plan Zamora consists of has never been made clear.
Some, like Rocío San Miguel, claim is exactly like the Plan Ávila activated by President Chávez on April 11th 2002, but is being executed by the Bolivarian National Armed Forces and the so-called Bolivarian militias. Others, like Julio Borges, underline that Maduro wanted a much more violently repressive plan, but it was vetoed by the Armed Forces.
The National Defense Council has no powers to review the decisions of the Supreme Tribunal.
And yet, the Colectivos clearly are involved in Plan Zamora. If this is the “less violently repressive plan” Padrino had to push for, the mind reels to think what Maduro’s original intentions were. In our view, since Maduro recalled the “Zamora 200 Anti-Imperialist Integral Action Exercise” of January 2017, the most likely interpretation is that Plan Zamora is a retread version of the same thing: a security mobilization that involves Colectivos, Consejos Comunales, Fuerza Motorizada, public workers, organizaciones populares and CLAPs.
Chief Prosecutor’s press conference was not televised on VTV
On Tuesday April 25th, Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz was set to give a press conference at 10:30 am. After the “impasse” on March 31st, VTV decided not to televise the press conference, probably as a just-in-case-she-criticizes-the-government type of thing.
Luisa Ortega Díaz was also supposed to be in “Vladimir a la 1” in Globovisión, but decided to cancel.
According to Luisa Ortega Díaz, up to Monday April 24th the wave of protests and repression totalled 1,289 apprehensions, 65 of which ended up behind bars and 267 had their presentation hearings set for April 25th. It should be noted that NGO Foro Penal claims the number of apprehended reached 1,486 up to April 24th at 4 pm.
Luisa Ortega Díaz also claimed that, in less than a month, 437 people were injured and 26 had died.
MUD also demanded: general elections to be convened, the release of political prisoners, the opening of a humanitarian channel to address food and medicine shortages and respect for the constitutional autonomy of the National Assembly.
What shocked us the most? In Naky’s words: “Luisa Ortega Díaz distanced herself from the government, she didn’t use newspeak and acknowledged the gravity of the situation. She acknowledged opaque proceedings during arrests and in certain court rulings. She condemned violence and even contradicted some statements issued by Interior minister Reverol and Nicolás himself.”
However, we think it’s important to remember that Luisa Ortega Díaz is responsible of many injustices and promoter of many others, so this episode should not erase all that.
OAS, over and out
After 19 countries voted in favor, 10 against and 4 abstained -Grenada was absent from the session-, on April 26th, the OAS approved a plan to call a meeting of member states’s foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan political crisis. This process didn’t start because of the current protests, but it sure kept on going because of them.
At 6:15 pm, Venezuela’s foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez addressed the nation on VTV and said “tomorrow, as the president, Nicolas Maduro, indicated, we will present the letter of resignation to the Organization of American States and begin a procedure that will take 24 months.” She also claimed Venezuela will not participate in any OAS meeting from now on.
In less than a month, yet another couple of arbitrary and unconstitutional decisions by the Supreme Tribunal sparked a major wave of demonstrations, repression and international reactions.
In the same time frame, opposition supporters and their leaders have managed to carry out protests in areas of Caracas that seemed out of their reach since 2013: government bastions that were supposed to be No-Go areas for the opposition.
After many failed attempts to cross over to Caracas’ West side, on April 19th our very own Javier Liendo marched on the west side and reported “a civil society determined to take its rights back. People who have seen the enemy in the eye and have chosen to stand their ground, to persevere, because this is no longer a matter of opinions”. And on April 21st, a silent protest was also able to cross to the West side, all the way to the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference in Montalbán.
Let’s not forget: on April 20th, El Valle was a terrible battlefield —all within earshot of Fuerte Tiuna. It was no a peaceful protest, but a violent confrontation between protesters, the public forces and the Colectivos in one of the supposed bastiones de la revolución on the west.
For the first time in a long time, MUD leaders seem to be acting in unison or something quite like it. The fissures between them are, at any rate, being kept out of view for now.
Though many are concerned that MUD might try to freeze the protests once the government publishes the dates for the regional and local elections, opposition leaders —at least for now— seem to be hunkering down for a long protest agenda. They’re trying to pace themselves and us, thinking creatively about new ways to protest — like madrugonazos (early morning protests) at the Defensoría del Pueblo and the Interior Ministry, silent protests and the sit-ins (plantones).
Venezuelans seem ready to continue protesting and it is not yet clear what will be the next link in a chain of events that have proved quite unfortunate for Maduro’s administration.