A New Battle for the National Assembly

The new twist in the neverending political crisis in Venezuela is the regime’s attempt, so far unsuccessful, to control the National Assembly, apparently by order of the Kremlin.

Photo: Cristian Hernández / AFP retrieved

First of all, it’s important to point out that there’s only one parliament in Venezuela, the National Assembly (AN). The Maduro regime didn’t make another parallel legislative body, apart from the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) that usurps some functions of the AN. 

The confusion here is actually around the National Assembly’s board. Luis Parra, a former Primero Justicia lawmaker, who was expelled from that opposition party after investigative journalist Roberto Deniz revealed he was lobbying internationally in favor of the companies behind the CLAP corruption scheme, claims to be the new AN Speaker. Why? Because Parra, the PSUV deputies who returned to the AN, and some other former opposition deputies involved in the same CLAP scandal, voted on Sunday to elect a new board for the AN. That vote was scheduled for that day, but it’s illegal because they didn’t have the certified quorum of 84 deputies (out of 167) to appoint a new board, and they didn’t follow the rules of procedure. In particular, that vote was made in a hurry, while many opposition lawmakers, the press and the ambassadors of countries like France were forbidden to enter the Legislative Palace by state security forces. The police and the National Guard allowed access to the deputies the regime was counting on and held a vote while the incumbent Speaker, Juan Guaidó, was unsuccessfully trying to climb the fence. To this day, neither Parra nor the regime have produced a credible list of votes that support Parra’s appointment; they can’t even agree on a number of deputies who allegedly voted for him. An important detail to understand who Parra is working for: he isn’t calling himself the caretaker president. 

That vote was scheduled for that day, but it’s illegal because they didn’t have the certified quorum of 84 deputies (out of 167) to appoint a new board, and they didn’t follow the rules of procedure.

Since the Speaker of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, who moderates the debate and deliberation process, was denied access on January 5th to the legislative building, the AN convened at the headquarters of newspaper El Nacional, and elected him for another term—abiding by the debate and voting rules, and with the verified votes of 100 deputies, as the press and some ambassadors were allowed to witness.

So, to say that there’s only one National Assembly isn’t an idealistic statement, but a fact, and this AN is still presided by Guaidó. The AN board that Parra claims to preside over can’t approve any decision. It’s not as if it could go ahead and approve loans, modifications of the Hydrocarbons Law or appoint electoral authorities. Of course, this doesn’t matter to chavismo. But it does matter to most of its international allies, especially those interested in the oil.  

Why would chavismo make such an aggressive move?

The Maduro regime still doesn’t control the AN, which is still seen as the only legitimate institution in Venezuela. Maduro can’t use the board he sees as the real one, presided by Luis Parra, to ease sanctions or to get credit abroad, not even with CAF, the South American development fund based in Caracas. 

So, in part, this about retaliating against Guaidó and trying to relaunch a narrative that can pollute his image abroad. That’s why the chavista propaganda network, in Venezuela and abroad, is pushing the message that Guaidó decided to not take part on the January 5th vote because he didn’t have the numbers, and that’s why they are insisting so much in making Luis Parra look as an opposition politician (which he’s not, obviously), to spread the idea that the opposition removed Guaidó from the Speaker’s seat. For informed Venezuelans and Venezuela-observers, such as our readers, there’s no way to see Parra as a member of the opposition: they know he was part of the lobbying scheme for the owners of the CLAP business, as Armando.Info revealed, and are aware that he was expelled from Primero Justicia. However, many other people abroad and some international media outlets are telling the story in a way that the regime’s trope can be bought. The BBC, for instance, described Parra as  a “dissident opposition politician.”  

That said, this move appears to have increased the regime’s capacity to harass and divide (physically) what’s left of the opposition. The Supreme Tribunal of Justice, TSJ, clearly loyal to chavismo, could use this as an excuse for imprisoning or pushing more lawmakers into exile, Guaidó included. The TSJ already declared that it considers illegal the change in the AN rules that allow deputies abroad to take part in voting sessions remotely, via video calls or to celebrate sessions off the premises of the Legislative Palace, so we can count on the same stance about any decision the AN makes from now on if it loses access to the parliamentary building. 

The role of the illegitimate ANC and its president, Diosdado Cabello, will be weaker if the regime keeps trying to take over the AN. It makes sense for Maduro to make an aggressive move to take over the legislature and weaken Cabello in the process (who is his political nemesis within the chavista power struggle), but there’s always the risk of Cabello being able to land on top of the National Assembly again.

All over the world, the headline of what happened on January 5th included a picture of Guaidó trying to climb the AN’s fence. This is fuel for Guaido’s very important allies abroad to reignite international measures against the regime, and leaves many of Maduro’s allies in the Americas with no choice but to condemn the use of brute force to take over parliament.

Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss

So, why go for the killshot? Because chavismo felt cornered. As we have reported in the Political Risk Report, and as it has become public by now, the Russian oil conglomerate Rosneft and the Russian military have been increasing their presence and operations on Venezuelan soil. As a matter of fact, the consolidation of the Russian influence over the Maduro regime is one of the main events of 2019, and it could be said that they are displacing Cuba in the chain of influence over chavista Venezuela. But this moment cannot be understood without considering what Bloomberg reported a few days before January 5th. As mentioned in our PRR: “A report by Bloomberg quotes Russian Vice-Minister of Finance Sergey Storchak saying his country is ready to step up its involvement in Venezuela and send advisors to guide the government in several areas—including the economy, social policy, and the oil sector. The interview was noteworthy because of how Storchak framed the plans: they’re ready to take those steps once Guaidó is out as Speaker of the National Assembly (…) Russia publicly putting conditions on Maduro to increase their support was an unexpected public rebuke of the latter’s leadership, and could be a sign that they’re losing patience with Maduro.”

The Russians must be disappointed, at least, of how the events unfolded. Now, Venezuela is in a very similar place as it was after the chavista National Constituent Assembly was put in place, but with a weaker parallel entity. On January 5th chavismo fumbled. It’s likely that they believed Parra would actually have a majority, as great efforts were made to ensure this by pressuring deputies from all sides. However, when it was clear they didn’t, chavismo acted as it usually does when it gets cornered. It bit. Especially because it was given no option but to get rid of Guaidó. Or that’s how chavismo understood it, if you’re not able to turn them; burn them. And no. This doesn’t exactly work for the purposes of the new master.

The international arena: where do the players stand?

The Lima Group stays with the legitimate AN and Guaidó, as well as the U.S. The European Union said that Guaidó is still the Speaker. Mexico and Argentina, two governments close to chavismo, criticized the use of force on January 5th. So in that sense, things remain the same: Guaidó is still considered the AN Speaker and Venezuela’s caretaker president by more than 50 countries, and therefore the Maduro regime remains unable to ask for loans without AN authorization. 

The aggression against the parliament, however, shows that Maduro is no longer interested in appearing prone to negotiating anything. Actually, the calls for dialogue that used to be a feature of international comments about the Venezuelan crisis have lost presence in the lastest statements (excepting, of course, those of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres). Nobody will admit their push for negotiations failed, but this event could diminish the international efforts for a dialogue between the regime and the opposition, which in the absence of any other source of pressure will mean in practice that the international community will continue lowering the volume of declarations against Maduro to focus on the handling of Venezuelan migration. It’s hard to think about more international sanctions, because the globally despised Trump administration can’t offer leadership in this matter, and because the region’s interest could be more about the improvement of the economic conditions in Venezuela, even if that means accepting Maduro—because that would ease the migratory pressure on the neighbors.  

Anyhow, the most important international stakeholder of this specific moment is the one who seems to appear behind the regime’s move against the AN: Russia. 

Where does the opposition stand right now?

After brief moments of tension at the gates of the AN on Tuesday, Juan Guaidó and the legitimate board, along with the majority of the National Assembly, pushed their way over the military blockade and stormed the legislature’s main building to carry out the first session of the year. A few moments earlier, Luis Parra and his allies left the Legislative Palace in a hurry after a very brief fake session. The legitimate board recovered their seats and with their majority, they ratified the act of Sunday’s vote at El Nacional, and Guaidó swore his oath of office as caretaker president, not in the streets as one year before, but in the parliament.

Guaidó is still considered the AN Speaker and Venezuela’s caretaker president by more than 50 countries, and therefore the Maduro regime remains unable to ask for loans without AN authorization. 

Although this event and its very powerful images, may give Guaidó a very much needed respite, it will be very hard to bring people back to the streets. Guaidó’s image has suffered from an exhausting year in which Maduro most definitely landed on top politically. While the opposition can get some renewed international attention, there are no reasons to think this will spark a new wave of protests: people won’t throw themselves into the cannons of colectivos and security forces to defend a leader and a parliament that failed to deliver the imminent change they promised a year ago. Not even because of the spectacular footage of Tuesday morning. Plus, there’s a sense of calm in Caracas and other key places, that can hardly be reverted by a political movement. No protests mean fewer photos and videos, and therefore less press coverage for an international audience worried about other topics and perhaps accepting the Venezuelan crisis as another permanent feature in a world ridden with conflicts as if Venezuela was the Middle East. 

Another point of note, it seems Guaido’s “untouchable” quality remains unscathed. The aggressive stance of the government on January 5th could lead one to think that they were ready to finally apprehend Guaidó, but clearly someone “upstairs” realized the mistake. Will Cabello or someone in the regime decide now that Guaidó must be detained to compensate Tuesday’s humiliation at the AN? We are about to find out.

While we wrap this piece, social media is going nuts with images of the opposition running over the guardsmen. The AN may have gotten a second wind politically, but we can’t expect that they will be able to operate as a real parliament. In 2019 they only approved a bunch of laws they cannot enforce, and heading into what looks like a convoluted year with legislative elections on the horizon, it doesn’t seem as if that statistic will be better for 2020. The Maduro regime still has better cards and its critical foreign partners, Russia and Cuba, are way more decided to act than the opposition’s.