When Did Venezuelan Democracy Die?

In December 2015 Venezuelan democracy took one big gasp for air, and chavismo decided that it would be its last. The murder weapons? CNE and TSJ

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Maduro gave Venezuelan democracy its final blow in December 2015. Yes, usually that time brings to mind the opposition’s historical win in legislative elections. And rightly so: it was no easy feat to beat a system that was wired to favor chavista strongholds, making PSUV almost impossible to defeat. But the response was overwhelming, and MUD’s campaign close to flawless. As a result, the monstrous system that Hugo Chavez’s National Assembly designed turned on its creator, and the opposition ended with a parliamentary supermajority—securing 112 deputies out of 167.

We wrote extensively about this during those days, often warning about what could go wrong. And the events that followed are ingrained in the memory of the Venezuela-watching community. We know, however, that some folks are just arriving to this conversation (and that others conveniently forgot about it). 

So here’s what happened.

In December 2015, the outgoing chavista National Assembly used its lame-duck session to appoint 13 new justices to the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal just days before the newly elected parliament took office. 

In rushing the appointments they violated a number of laws and constitutional provisions on the procedure to postulate and approve potential justices. This is not just a rude and low political subterfuge, it’s constitutional fraud. 

Immediately after the new National Assembly deputies were sworn in, the newly revamped chavista Supreme Tribunal confirmed our worst fears: they “invalidated” the election of four opposition deputies from Amazonas state and declared the parliament “in contempt” for opposing the measure. This was its sadly infamous “desacato” (contempt) finding.

This is context we must not forget. Especially now, as the regime is pushing hard to name a new CNE and hold legislative elections as soon as possible.

With this and other tricks, the National Assembly was quickly rendered powerless to do almost anything: legislate, pass budgets, oversee the executive and, crucially, appoint state bodies such as a new elections authority (CNE). That same Supreme Tribunal later declared most opposition parties illegal, annulled the election of Zulia State governor Juan Pablo Guanipa, blocked a recall referendum against Maduro, and backed the fraudulent 2018 presidential election summoned by the Constituent Assembly, an illegal chavista political institution used to usurp the functions of the legislature, in which Maduro reelected himself for a new term—and where only a small fraction of the opposition led by Henry Falcón, a former chavista governor, participated.

This is context we must not forget. Especially now, as the regime is pushing hard to name a new CNE and hold legislative elections as soon as possible. Last Friday, June 5th, the Supreme Tribunal declared yet another “constitutional omission” of the National Assembly for failing to appoint a new CNE board. The judiciary has used this omission subterfuge to name the CNE before, even when it’s an exclusive function of the parliament. So it’s clear that they are about to do it again.    

Had chavismo let democracy run its course, in the months and years following the election of 2015, the National Assembly would have named new justices to the Supreme Tribunal. Balance would have been restored to the judiciary branch: it would have remained a largely chavista body, but not a wholly-owned subsidiary of the president’s office. The opposition-leaning National Assembly would have appointed a new CNE, which necessarily would have included the most impartial possible board, not just because that’s what the law says, but because of the distribution of power in the three (main) branches of government—which would have started to recover some independence from each other. 

December 2015 was a turning point. Venezuela had the chance to slowly transit back to democracy. It had the chance to revamp its political institutions, to transform into an imperfect country ruled by imperfect politicians that would be forced to sit and make compromises. But chavismo decided to burn its ships.

Killing democracy was a decision.

The danger now is we’ll get snookered into thinking there’s a chance that playing along by chavista rules could produce results similar to those of December 2015—as team Falcón has started to voice on the Intertubes. Remember: Venezuelan democracy is dead. Because it was murdered. What we’re left with is its corpse: the eleborate fraud that gave us the Constituent Assembly and got Maduro elected in 2018.

I don’t know what the solution is, though I’m sure it can’t consist of hoping for an impossible international intervention or of submitting to chavismo. Our role here is not to come up with a solution. Our role is to record what happens, however painful it may be, and to bring it up when it matters.