Political tensions have spiked in Venezuela following the attempt by the Nicolás Maduro administration and its allies to take over the National Assembly by force. The National Assembly is led by Juan Guaidó, a critic of Maduro who is recognized as interim president of Venezuela by more than 50 countries that consider Maduro’s administration to be illegitimate.
The country is headed to even further institutional crisis. There are now two people claiming to be the legitimate leader of the National Assembly, two people with claims on the presidency, two groups of judges claiming to be the legitimate Supreme Court, and a National Constituent Assembly of questionable legality that claims the power to overrule all other state institutions.
Clashes in the Legislative Palace
On Jan. 5, National Assembly members were scheduled to meet inside the Legislative Palace in downtown Caracas to elect the new leadership of the National Assembly. Guaidó and his allies had secured his reelection, with Juan Pablo Guanipa and Carlos Berrizbeitia, both also opponents of Maduro, as vice presidents. However, members of the Venezuelan military, an institution that has maintained its loyalty to the Maduro administration, blocked the roads around the Palace, either delaying or preventing the entrance of several representatives, including Guaidó, who was unable to enter. Amid the chaos around the Palace gates, Representative Luis Parra, until recently a critic of Maduro but who was sanctioned by his opposition party due to corruption allegations against him, was sworn in inside the Palace as new president of the National Assembly. Guaidó and his allies denounced the situation, saying there was no quorum to start the session, and that Parra did not have the votes to be elected. Parra’s allies have not clarified how many votes he received, but he was supported by members of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV).
Unable to access the Legislative Palace, Guaidó and his allies reconvened hours later in another building and held a session in which Guaidó was reelected. Guaidó and his allies, as well as the governments of the US, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, and multiple other nations, recognized Guaidó’s reelection and denounced the process that elected Parra as fraudulent. The Maduro administration and Russia have recognized Parra as president of the National Assembly.
The Parallel Institutions
The conflict on Jan. 5 was likely planned by Maduro’s allies to remove the opposition from the National Assembly and undermine Guaidó, Maduro’s biggest rival. Following a state of the union address in 2016, Maduro did not return to the opposition-led National Assembly, considering it illegitimate. After his controversial reelection in 2018, Maduro was sworn in by the Supreme Court, and many of his policies have been approved by the National Constituent Assembly, a body that is supposed to write a new Constitution, but has instead functioned as a parallel legislature. From now on, Maduro will likely use the Parra-led National Assembly to claim some legitimacy in his policies, including the approval of a national budget and international agreements.
Venezuela’s institutional crisis will deepen, with internal and international recognition divided between two presidents, two Supreme Courts, and now two National Assemblies.
The conflict for the control of the National Assembly further reduces the likelihood of a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s long-standing crisis. In recent months, contacts between Guaidó and Maduro’s allies successfully negotiated the return of the PSUV members to the National Assembly to elect the new board of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Instead of the semi-bipartisan process promised by those negotiations, the new CNE will likely be elected by the Parra-led National Assembly, sidelining Guaidó and most of the parties that oppose Maduro. Parra and 15 other representatives were part of the anti-Maduro coalition until December. Eight of them surprised their colleagues on Jan. 5 by switching alliances, generating rumors of bribery. Some representatives still loyal to Guaido have said they received offers of close to USD 1 million to abandon Guaidó but refused.
New legislative elections are scheduled for 2020, but due to recent events, it is very likely that the parties opposed to Maduro will not participate in such an election. Guaido’s supporters will likely take to the streets in 2020, increasing the chances of clashes and violence.
The military will continue to play a crucial role in determining the immediate trajectory of Venezuela’s future. Given the lack of institutional routes to solve the crisis, as long as the military maintains its support on Maduro, it is likely that he will remain in power, just as he did in 2019, despite large internal and external pressure.
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