The Maduro Regime Took Over the National Assembly. Now What?

The political landscape in Venezuela changed yet again, when the last institution whose members were legally elected fell under five years of persecution. Here’s where Guaidó and his rivals stand now

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

On January 5th, things started to look different in Venezuela. There was no National Constituent Assembly anymore. The alternate leadership of the National Assembly, imposed by the chavista-controlled Supreme Tribunal of Justice, made of defectors of the opposition parties, also disappeared. And the last institution whose members were legally elected by the people, the National Assembly formed after the legislative elections of December 2015, had finished its five-year term. 

Instead, we saw the Legislative Palacefrom where the opposition and the independent media were banned a year agoas the scenario for the crowded inauguration of the first year of a new National Assembly (277 appointed deputies, a 66% expansion, also illegal, from the constitutional 167). The Speaker was none other than Jorge Rodríguez (former Propaganda minister, Caracas mayor, vice president, etc) and a lot of representatives from other countries and UN agencies were present. 

This new Venezuelan parliament is illegitimate, as is Maduro as president. Right now, all political powers in Venezuela are sitting there due to institutional (and physical) brute force: none of them were elected following the rules and procedures established in the Constitution. But the fact is that we don’t have a proper Congress anymore, because the real one was deposed, its powers neutered and many of its members exiled or jailed, an institution blocked from renewal by proper legislative elections. The fact is that what we have instead of a parliament is a sort of Supreme Soviet totally controlled by the regime, as is the National Assembly in Cuba.

This is the culmination of a siege by all means that began in 2016: the regime worked to overcome the challenges created by the opposition win of the AN in 2015, and that was one of the axes of Venezuelan politics during these last years. Now, the regime has more space to finish the threat to its power posed by Guaidó’s claim to the caretaker presidency and an obedient parliament to sign a good array of laws and contracts that could increase, for instance, Iranian and Russian investments in oil fields. 

How 2021 Begins

Beyond the parafernalia of Bolívar and Chávez’s portraits and the people in red (although way less that in Chávez’s monochromatic times), the most meaningful part of what happened on January 5th at the Legislative Palace is the presence of Jorge Rodríguez as the new Speaker. It was known the day before that he would preside over the chavista assembly, which has its own meaning in terms of how powerful he has become compared to Diosdado Cabello. Yesterday, we heard his speech, which left a bunch of ideas to keep an eye on: 

  • Guaidó and his allies will be prosecuted without mercy; 
  • By saying that sanctions couldn’t be an excuse for the government to not do its job, Rodríguez signaled that the AN will simulate independence at least at the rhetoric level;
  • The regime is openly preparing for a new dialogue process with the Biden administration that they hope will naturally turn to their favor, as all the similar previous attempts.

Right now, all political powers in Venezuela are sitting there due to institutional (and physical) brute force: none of them were elected following the rules and procedures established in the Constitution.

Meanwhile, in some place in Caracas, in the presence of a few lawmakers, Juan Guaidó and Juan Guanipa opened a “period of constitutional continuity” for five more years. In a live broadcast, Guaidó insisted that the National Assembly elected in December 2015, where he’s the Speaker, is still sitting after the end of its term on January 5th. If we have no legislative election to choose the members of the new parliament, but the illegitimate election of December 6th, why is Guaidó saying that his AN will keep working for five more years? 

This is where the “Delegate Commission” enters the scene.

The illegitimacy of the December 6th legislative elections got the opposition majority at the AN on the constitutional dilemma of the period’s end for the deputies elected in 2015 (Juan Guaidó among them), and the void provoked by the inauguration of a new parliament that has no legitimacy of origin. This also carries a decision on the institutional support of the caretaker presidency embodied by Guaidó, a deputy that took on the role of Caretaker President in 2019, as part of his AN Speaker functions, when Nicolás Maduro began a new illegitimate administration derived from an illegitimate presidential election on 2018. Back then, the National Assembly followed the Constitution by turning the legislative leader into the head of State, in the absence of an actual legitimate president.

This is why the AN reformed the Transition to Democracy Statute to reestablish the validity of the Constitution at the end of 2020, foreseeing the January 5th scenario. The solution decided by the National Assembly to retain its role is described in Article 12 of the Statute, through the “Delegate Commission,” a constitutional concept to rule the partial operation of the parliament during its recesses, to which new functions were added to morph it into a National Assembly substitute of sorts, until political change is achieved. Among these new functions, according to the reform, is the declaration of Guaidó as caretaker president until word on the contrary, and the creation of bigger controls on the caretaker presidency, such as those relating to recovered actives. An important reform is the creation of the “Political Council” as a replacement for the Government Center created in 2019, to be structured by Guaidó.

The constitutional basis for the operation of the National Assembly will be perceived with acute criticism by the international community. We used to have a clearly legitimate National Assembly that just had no access to the Legislative Palace; now that its period is over and it’s been replaced by an assembly that’s designed and subservient to the regime, we have a National Assembly that’s unrenewed by actual elections.

This, mind you, isn’t the same as keeping the validity of the AN until a new legitimate parliamentary election occurs, and that’s why some discomfort abroad in digesting this move is to be expected.

According to the Statute, the last AN properly elected by citizens intends to operate beyond its regular five years by way of this Delegate Commission, where functions will be concentrated as if it were a lifeboat, and decisions will be executed without approval by all of the deputies. This, mind you, isn’t the same as keeping the validity of the AN until a new legitimate parliamentary election occurs, and that’s why some discomfort abroad in digesting this move is to be expected.

Who’s Buying the Respective Stories

All of this will carry weight on the international community analysis about the constitutional continuity of the AN and the caretaker presidency. Once again, different governments and international institutions must take a stance about the legitimacy of the Venezuelan political actors. They had to do it in January 2019 too, but the correlation of forces is way better for the Maduro regime now, even with the high degree of international isolation it’s facing.

Some of these dilemmas are already in motion in the international reactions to the events of January 5th. The regime’s allies sent diplomats to the inauguration: countries like Syria, China, Bolivia (back to a socialist government), Nicaragua, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (an OPEC partner), Iran, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Egypt, Russia, Vietnam, India, Belarus, some Caribbean states like Dominica and Barbados, and notably Argentina and Mexico. We could say all these governments are seeing this AN as legitimate and will celebrate contracts with it. 

For the governments that recognized Guaidó as caretaker president in January 2019, except the outgoing Trump administration, things aren’t that easy. The support for the legitimate AN and Guaidó that has been expressed since January 5th has some meaningful nuances. Canada, Colombia, Brazil and the U.S. directly expressed they still see Guaidó as the caretaker president, while Chile and Costa Rica recognized the creation of the delegate commission “presided by Juan Guaidó.” The Lima Group declared the new AN illegitimate and recognized the Delegate Commission “presided by Juan Guaidó.” Uruguay just said it doesn’t recognize the new AN. 

The European Union didn’t declare the new AN illegitimate but said the December 6th election was undemocratic, and asked for negotiations with all actors, mentioning Guaidó without calling him caretaker president. The vice president of the European Parliament declared her support to Guaidó as caretaker president.  

Now, it remains to be seen the exact effects of all this. First, how the pro-democracy international community will deal, in practice, with the fact that there isn’t a proper parliament in Venezuela and that Guaidó’s titles, as speaker and caretaker president, are questionable. How will this impact the recognition of ambassadors named by the ongoing AN, or in trials regarding Venezuelan gold reserves in the UK or the control of CITGO? Second, what will be the use of the new AN? Is this the platform for Jorge Rodríguez as Maduro’s dauphin, or just a placeholder in lieu of a real parliament? 

Anyhow, during 2021, the attention will probably turn towards a new negotiation attempt between the Maduro regime and the Biden administration, one wanting the end of sanctions and the other the improvement of Venezuela’s economic and political conditions. Who’s going to sit at that table will depend on how the members of the real National Assembly, the one we lost yesterday, will retain leverage. Will Guaidó have a seat in that negotiation? When that moment comes, we’ll be able to assess the extension of the damage done yesterday when we lost the last fragment of our shattered democracy.