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Venezuela president, Supreme Court walk back move to strip congress of power

Venezuelan opposition activists take part in a protest - blocked by the National Guard - against the government of President Nicolas Maduro at the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas on April 1, 2017.
Federico Parra | AFP | Getty Images
Venezuelan opposition activists take part in a protest - blocked by the National Guard - against the government of President Nicolas Maduro at the Francisco Fajardo highway in Caracas on April 1, 2017.

Venezuela's president and Supreme Court backed down Saturday from an unprecedented move to strip congress of its legislative powers that had sparked widespread charges that the South American country was no longer a democracy.

President Nicolas Maduro asked the Supreme Court in a late-night speech to review a ruling nullifying the branch of power that set off a storm of criticism from the opposition and foreign governments. The court on Saturday reinstated congress' authority.

It was a rare instance of the embattled socialist president backing away from a move to increase his power. Opposition leaders dismissed the reversal as too little too late. They said the clarification issued by the judges only proved yet again that Maduro controls the courts and there is no longer a real separation of powers in Venezuela.

"The dire situation we're living through in Venezuela remains the same. There is nothing to "clarify" when it comes to respecting the Constitution," said moderate leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

At the same time, critics celebrated the reversal as proof that cracks are beginning to show in Maduro's control of a country spiraling into chaos, with his approval ratings dipping below 20 percent amid the worsening economic and humanitarian crisis.

Opposition leaders recast a planned Saturday protest as an open air meeting. Hundreds of supporters joined congress members in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood to celebrate the rare victory.

Later, soldiers fired tear gas on activists who attempted to march on government offices downtown and blocked their path with barricades and armored cars. Some of protesters jumped atop the military vehicles and made triumphant gestures.

"It's not clear exactly how wounded the government is. This is the first time since the opposition won the National Assembly in 2015 that they have managed to get the president to reverse a decision. So this is huge," said Javier Corrales, who teaches Latin American politics at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Saturday's revision undoes most of the original court decision, but will still allow Maduro to enter into joint oil ventures without congressional approval. Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno met with diplomats in the morning and warned that the court would not "remain passive" in the face of attacks on the country's right to self-rule.

Maduro issued his instructions to the court after an emergency night meeting of the National Security Council Friday night that was boycotted by congress leaders. The three-hour meeting capped an extraordinary day in which Venezuela's chief prosecutor and long-time loyalist of the socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chavez broke with the administration and denounced the court ruling. Luisa Ortega said it was her "unavoidable historical duty" as the nation's top judicial authority to decry what she called a "rupture" of the constitutional order.

That statement, and the internal division that it exposed for the first time, may have been the most damaging moment of the whole episode.

"It was really perhaps the first sign of public dissent within the ranks. And it was huge that Maduro did not trash her. Maduro must have realized that Ortega was not acting alone," Corrales said.

Images posted on Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas' Twitter account showed Ortega heading to the government palace on Saturday to meet with Maduro.

Small protests popped up all around the capital beginning at dawn Friday. Troops from the National Guard fired buckshot and swung batons at students protesting in front of the Supreme Court, and several journalists had their cameras seized.

As the country's currency hemorrhaged value and some analysts began to project the beginning of the end of 18 years of socialist rule in Venezuela, Maduro invited congress president Julio Borges to speak with him about the situation. But Borges refused, breaking a years-long streak in which the opposition ramps up pressure on the administration only to help diffuse it at the last minute by coming to the bargaining table, usually fruitlessly.

"In Venezuela the only dialogue possible is the vote," Borges said Friday night.

The Supreme Court ruled had late Wednesday that until lawmakers abided by previous rulings that nullified all legislation passed by congress, the high court could assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition since it won a landslide victory in elections in late 2015.

The ruling had brought down two days of condemnation by governments across Latin America, along with the United States and the United Nations. Colombia, Chile and Peru withdrew their ambassadors over the ruling.

The South American trade bloc Mercosur, which suspended Venezuela in December, called an emergency meeting. And the Organization of American States announced that it would hold an emergency meeting at its Washington headquarters on Monday to discuss what Secretary General Luis Almagro called a "self-inflicted coup."

Maduro was conspicuously silent during much of the two days of turmoil. Then on Saturday, dressed in black and waving copy of Venezuelan constitution, likened the international condemnation to a "political lynching."

He concluded his remarks with a call for more dialogue.

"I'm ready with whoever is willing," he said.

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