Right and left face off in Venezuelan legislature

Since Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s left-wing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost its majority in the December 6, 2015 legislative election, its battle with right forces has entered a new stage. With control of the National Assembly, the right is moving quickly to consolidate its power while the PSUV has shifted to defense in order to protect the “Bolivarian” heritage built by the late President Hugo Chavez. The latest showdown is centered on the question of the exact size of the majority held by the right in the National Assembly. 

In December, the right-wing Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition won 112 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly, a majority of precisely two thirds. But four elections in Amazonas state – three of which went to the right and one to a PSUV allied party – have been challenged. Questions have been raised about suspected violations of election law.

On January 2, the Supreme Court suspended the seating of the four legislators until an investigation of the corruption allegations could be conducted. If any violations are confirmed, it could trigger new elections for the seats in question.

Defying the Supreme Court’s order, however, the right moved quickly to swear in their three challenged legislators. Their action prompted the Court to declare the National Assembly in violation of its previous order and said any laws passed by the body would be invalid until further notice. The MUD coalition, led by Henry Ramos Allup from disgraced former President Carlos Andres Perez’s Accion Democratica party, accused the court of being under the control of President Maduro and the PSUV. He pointed to the government’s installation of twelve new judges by the PSUV before it lost its majority. Within days, however, Ramos Allup climbed down and accepted the court’s ruling.

The stakes are so high because, if its two-thirds majority in the Assembly is confirmed, the right can theoretically begin a process to remove President Maduro from power. Upon his ascension to the Assembly leadership, Ramos Allup declared his intention to do just that within six months. Signaling his hostility to the Maduro government, he ordered portraits of former President Hugo Chavez and South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar taken down from the legislative chamber. According to leaked documents, Ramos Allup has also been linked with the U.S. embassy in Caracas in the past and has often requested money from officials there for his group’s political campaigns.

If the right can hold on to its challenged seats, it would be possible to set in motion the process of calling a national referendum on Maduro’s presidency. There are also other powers that come along with the crucial two-thirds majority: the ability to remove other public officials, such as Supreme Court judges, and authority to amend the constitution.

Though Ramos Allup and the MUD coalition have backed down on seating their three contested legislators, they have not given up and are now attempting to reinterpret the rules of the Assembly. According to Ramos Allup, his group still has a two-thirds majority even without the challenged seats because the majority should be calculated on the basis of legislators actually sworn in.

The right argues the removal of the four challenged legislators shrinks the membership of the National Assembly to only 163 seats, meaning they would maintain their majority. The Maduro government and the PSUV contend that the two thirds majority would have to be calculated on the basis of all 167 seats in the Assembly, in which case the MUD majority falls under two thirds – at least until the controversy of the four seats is settled. The dispute will almost certainly go back to the courts.

Meanwhile, the right has introduced legislation to privatize the thousands of housing units which were built for the poor by the Chavez-Maduro government. Currently, residents of these units hold them under a perpetual lease from the state. This was done to prevent the creation of a speculative market in real estate. The new law proposed by the right would hand over the units as simple private property. The government sees this as a demagogic move to win support from people who like the idea of being property owners.

Legislation to dollarize the Venezuelan currency, or to drop the Bolivar and adopt the U.S. dollar as happened in Ecuador and El Salvador, is also being considered. The right-wing legislative majority also plans to give amnesty to a number of people convicted of fomenting violence during the “guarimba” riots of 2014 that killed 43 people.  Most of those killed were supporters of Maduro’s government, security personnel, or innocent bystanders. 

The main individual the right wants to spring from prison is Leopoldo Lopez, an extremist and one of the wealthiest people in Venezuela, whose incendiary agitation was a major factor in the riots. He is currently serving a 13-year term.

Coupled with the right-wing offensive inside Venezuela, there are also pressures coming from outside the country. The Washington Post, the Economist, the New York Times, and others have questioned the validity of the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s decisions because the president chose its members. Multiple governments and political figures overseas, including in the United States, Argentina, and Spain, have joined in the efforts to destabilize Venezuela and bring it back into the neoliberal program of corporate-dominated free trade, privatization, and austerity. The newly elected right-wing president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, has called for Venezuela to be suspended from the MERCOSUR trade group, though he has so far not succeeded.

On the other hand, labor unions and other people’s organizations, as well as the pro-Bolivarian left in Venezuela, are intensifying their activities at the grassroots. They are mobilizing forces to defend the gains made in areas such as labor rights, land reform, education, and healthcare, while also criticizing past government practices which are seen as having created an opening for the right’s advance.

Photo: Economy Minister Luis Salas.  |  Telesur Twitter


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.