The Greatest Trick Maduro Ever Pulled Was Convincing the World the National Assembly Still Exists

Newsflash: The National Assembly was shut down. Years ago. It’s just that the government, in an inspired bit of next-generation authoritarianism, never told us.

Photo: Sputnik, retrieved.

The Capitol is still there, in the heart of downtown Caracas, sitting atop the Guzmán Blanco-era Palacio Federal Legislativo, which is also still there. And the hemiciclo —the chamber where deputies meet— is also still there, same as always.

Even more confusing, the people who were elected in 2015 to serve as legislators still gather in the hemiciclo several times a week. They still call one another diputado. They still make speeches and pass motions and opine on the country and its future.

But the National Assembly?

It’s not there.

It was shut down more than two years ago through a series of court decisions that withdrew not most of its powers but all of them.

The people who gather in the Palacio Federal Legislativo cannot pass laws. They cannot pass budgets. They do not enjoy parliamentary immunity. They cannot compel executive branch officials to testify before them. They cannot subpoena documents from the executive. They have no oversight powers of any kind. They cannot censure ministers. They have no budget. No salaries. No health insurance. They don’t even control the National Assembly’s TV Station.

What they have is…a building.

Or, well, access to a building, on days when the Constituyente isn’t in session.

The people who gather in the Palacio Federal Legislativo cannot pass laws. They cannot pass budgets. They do not enjoy parliamentary immunity.

Reading Colette Capriles’s essay here earlier this week, it struck me that she’s laboring under a carefully crafted misconception. Like almost everyone, she’s been taken in by an illusion the government has spent years painstakingly constructing.

She believes there’s a National Assembly.

That she does—that almost everyone does—demonstrates the government’s stunning success at an impossible task: shutting down a democratically elected branch of government without anybody noticing. Dismantling a cornerstone institution without even its members —especially its members— getting the memo.

The solution they came up with is, in its own amoral way, brilliant.

They avoided a blunt, 20th-century style Fujimorazo with tanks rolling down streets and lawmakers marched off to prisons. Instead, they identified the heart of the matter. Not the visible hardware of the Assembly, but it its invisible software: its powers and attributions. And, of course, its budget. What matters.

It’s an elegant solution, one that’s succeeded beyond chavismo’s wildest dreams. The opposition’s utter disorientation these last few years has everything to do with the impossible position the move leaves them in: they control a power, but have no power.

The disorientation this generates has prevented the opposition from coalescing in the way it surely would have if they’d sent in the tanks. It has sunk the opposition into a long series of abstract, fruitless debates, each driving a bigger wedge not just between them and their constituents, but between them and reality.

The opposition’s utter disorientation these last few years has owed everything to the otherworldly position of controlling a power yet having no power.

Just think of the at-the-time-incandescent-now-forgotten debate over having the Assembly declare that Maduro had abandoned his post? The endless bickering and politicking over who will become Speaker of the Assembly? The recondite fight these last few weeks over the metaphysical meaning of today’s date?

These things are not treatments for the delirium Maduro has induced: they are its symptoms.

The brain-scrambling exercise of trying to figure out what to do with this thing that looks-like-a-parliament-but-isn’t has absorbed a huge amount of the political opposition’s time and attention.

It has turned the relation between opposition parties and their followers toxic: voters are (rightly) disgusted with the National Assembly’s utter inability to make any kind of difference and (wrongly)minded to blame the victim of the 2016 powergrab.

The reality is that Venezuela doesn’t have a National Assembly, because it doesn’t have a duly elected body able to exercise the powers and attributions of a National Assembly.

If there’s one thing that the people who gather regularly at the Palacio Federal Legislativo could do to make a difference is to reconcile themselves with that fact. To face it, square in the face. To digest its implications, give up the pretense, level with their followers and organize to reverse it.

The alternative is denial. And delirium.