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Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly: Dictatorship by Legislature

Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly: Dictatorship by Legislature

With each passing day, the news comes from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is more disturbing. With the distributive socialism of late President Hugo Chávez’s “revolution” breaking down, the regime is forced to hold onto power through extraconstitutional legislation and violence against peaceful pro-democracy protestors.

Decreasing global oil prices and flagrant economic mismanagement have plunged the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin. President Nicolás Maduro’s approval rating hovers around twenty percent, and Venezuela’s legislature, the National Assembly (AN), is controlled by a coalition of opposition groups. Since 2014, protests against the regime have erupted all across the country. Everyone in the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) knows that their party would be wiped out if the scheduled October 2018 presidential elections were allowed to go forward.

Faced with this daunting landscape, Maduro devised a clever solution: he would summon a National Constituent Assembly (ANC). Colloquially referred to as a constituyente, in Venezuelan politics this body amounts to what Americans would call a constitutional convention: a body empowered to rewrite the constitution entirely. Such a body was convened in 1999 after the election of Hugo Chávez to create the current constitution of the “Bolivarian Republic.” There is one major difference, however: that constituyente was at least called into being by referendum, whereas Maduro’s was declared by presidential fiat.

Because the constituyente election was decreed rather than voted on, as Venezuela’s constitution stipulates, the opposition declared the whole business to be illegitimate and refused to participate. Unfortunately, this meant that all the seats in the new ANC—those elected by locality and those elected by interest and professional group—would be chosen from among pro-regime candidates.

With the elections scheduled for July 30, millions of Venezuelans expressed their opposition, through an unofficial referendum held on July 16 and through massive protests and strikes. Nevertheless, the ANC election went forward. Despite the presence of nearly 400,000 soldiers deployed to “keep order” throughout the country, protests raged in the streets and Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) snipers murdered several demonstrators.

Venezuela now finds itself in the unenviable position of having two dueling legislatures: the opposition-controlled AN and the extraconstitutional ANC that was created to make it obsolete. Headed by veteran socialist ideologue and former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, the ANC formally announced on August 18 that it was assuming legislative power in Venezuela. (Other high-level members of the ANC include Cilia Flores and Nicolás Maduro Guerra, the president’s wife and son.) While Rodríguez insists that the opposition-controlled AN still exists de jure, everyone in Venezuela knows that this is only a fig leaf and the AN has effectively been dissolved as a lawmaking body. To their credit, opposition members of the AN have vowed to continue meeting as the lawful legislature of the nation.

The new ANC has been met with almost universal scorn on the international stage. Many countries have declared the ANC to be illegitimate. The European Parliament, the Organization of American States, and Mercosur have all condemned the actions of the regime. The United States has imposed sanctions on numerous individuals—including Maduro himself—in recent weeks. Only the usual anti-democracy suspects have voiced supported for the ANC: Cuba and a gaggle of leftist Latin American governments, Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and Syria. Even the Pope is calling on Maduro to suspend the ANC.

The socialist regime is paying no heed to its plethora of detractors. Already, the ANC’s activities are taking an Orwellian turn: as of August 16, a “Truth, Justice and Reparation Commission” has assumed office in Caracas. The purpose of this new body, according to its president—once again, Delcy Rodríguez—is to “[determine] the truth, so that the Venezuelans understand the origin and the illicit cause of the facts of violence that have affected peace and the public tranquility.” Maduro has stated that the commission “can try anyone.” Though the name evokes that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa after 1991, the Venezuelan commission’s purpose is rather the reverse—to perpetuate injustice rather than to end it. Already, the ANC has claimed its first scalp: Luisa Ortega Díaz, the former chief prosecutor of Venezuela. Though a chavista, Ortega denounced the ANC and the Maduro regime’s heavy-handed repression of street protests. In response, the ANC stripped her of her position and GNB soldiers laid siege to her office. Fearing for their freedom, Ortega and her husband have since fled to neighboring Colombia.

Ortega is not the only dissident to suffer in post-ANC Venezuela: opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma were snatched from their homes in the dark of night by SEBIN, Venezuela’s shadowy, Cuban-run state security service. David Smolansky and Ramón Muchacho, mayors from the opposition coalition, are on the run after being tried in absentia. The family of General Raúl Baduel, a former associate of Hugo Chávez who broke with the comandante in 2007, announced that he had been disappeared from Ramo Verde military prison—his whereabouts remain unknown.

Opposition leaders and international observers alike fear that this breaking wave of arrests, detentions, and disappearances is only the beginning of a rising tide of tyranny. The rise of the ANC and its associated organs within the Maduro regime bode ill for the future of freedom in Venezuela.