Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the leadership of the main opposition party, Primero Justicia, and ruled that a pro-government MP should be in charge. On Monday, the same happened to the second largest opposition party, the Acción Democrática. Both decisions were based on appeals from expelled party members.
A week earlier, the country’s highest court had appointed new members of the Electoral Council, a body of five officials tasked with organizing elections. Of the new judges, two have previously served as judges at the same Supreme Court, and one is a former Socialist legislator who has been under U.S. sanctions since 2017.
The court, which traditionally supports the president, made the decision even though the Venezuelan constitution says the National Assembly – controlled by the opposition – should elect members of the Electoral Council. The verdict was part of a form by which the Supreme Court refused to recognize the legitimacy of the assembly.
Welcoming the verdicts on Tuesday, Maduro said: “We will change everything that must change in the National Assembly. With a lot of strength and a lot of faith, our action will be grandiose.”
Supreme Court rulings on quick inheritance suggest that the balance is leaning toward Venezuela and that Maduro feels confident enough to cement his rule, while the opposition is effectively silenced by the coronavirus.
By at least March 2020, Venezuela had experienced a kind of institutional gap: on the one hand, there was Maduro, who had ruled the country since 2013 and who was accused of rigging post-election elections and turning his presidency into a dictatorship. On the other side was Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly that the United States and dozens of other countries recognize as a legitimate interim president as long as Maduro remains in power.
Guaidó had no authority in Caracas, but he had the support of the international community, for example, when he was invited as a guest to President Trump’s address on the state of the Union in February.
The coronavirus changed all that: suddenly the political and institutional conflicts pushed away and Maduro took over as the person in charge of fighting the pandemic.
He issued a curfew, received medical help from China and began appearing on television with detailed measures and announcing new cases and deaths almost daily.
As the population was shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, the opposition could no longer organize street protests or even gather in person in the National Assembly.
“It is quite clear that Maduro took advantage of the pandemic,” Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuelan expert at the Washington Office Research Center for Latin America, told CNN. “If at any point in the last two years he has appeared weak or not responsible, he is now making up for it.”
To date, fewer than 3,500 coronavirus cases and only 28 deaths have been reported in Venezuela, although experts doubt the reliability of the data given that the country’s health system is in disarray and has limited capacity to conduct Covid-19 trials.
Luisa Ortega Diaz, a former attorney general, turned to Maduro’s enemy, told CNN she could not believe the success story drawn by the government. “It bothers me that Maduro claims it’s an anti-covid paladin when there’s no interest in the welfare of the people.”
Ortega, though he admitted, Maduro managed to use the pandemic to strengthen his rule.
Madurov is a big leap forward
Maduro’s last moves did not go unnoticed. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called the new election council “illegal” and said the sentence “leads Venezuela beyond the democratic transition.”
Similar criticism has come from the European Union and the Lima Group, which brings together several Latin American countries that Maduro does not recognize.
But other than condemning the latest pressure from the Venezuelan leader, it seems the international community can do so for now to bring about change in Venezuela.
Maduro and some of his closest officials have been under direct U.S. sanctions since 2017, followed by the 2019 oil embargo. He has survived several demolition attempts and nearly as many negotiations aimed at reaching a peaceful solution. Despite everything, he still stands.
Moreover, Latin America has become the focus of a pandemic and most of its governments are more preoccupied with fighting the virus than finding a solution to the political stalemate in Venezuela.
“The pandemic was like the perfect opportunity for Maduro,” said Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian at the Central University of Caracas.
The decision to set up an army to respond to the coronavirus strengthened its social oversight, she said.  In March, the Venezuelan military was deployed to impose strict measures of social distancing across the country, while recently soldiers refueled gas stations to refuel.
“In Venezuela, we have an expression – let’s run forward,” López Maya said. “Obviously the government thought this was the right time to make a big leap forward to put themselves ahead of the future.”
The future remains unclear in a country as unstable as Venezuela.
One of the five new members of the Electoral Council, Rafael Simón Jiménez, told CNN that he considers himself an opponent of Maduro and that the opposition should consider his appointment as advancing towards fair elections.
Jimenez is part of a large group of opposition figures of “dissident chansists”: politicians who collaborated with Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez before falling out with the ruler. Much like former AG Ortega Diaz, Jimenez is not an ally of Maduro, but is automatically not a member of the Guaido-led opposition either.
So far, Guaidó has said he does not recognize the Supreme Court ruling and will not run in the elections organized by the new electoral council.
Nevertheless, new opposition party leaders appointed by court order this week could choose to run in the election, further disintegrating the opposition field between groups that recognize Guaid’s leadership and groups that do not.
Ramsey, an analyst, still finds hope for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.
In particular, the international community said it still sees negotiations between Maduro and the opposition as the best possible outcome, and although it has condemned the new electoral council, the possibility seems open for Maduro himself to run in the next round of elections. elections.
Maduro’s departure has long been seen as a precondition for any meaningful negotiations in Venezuela, but if the opposition gives up on that demand, the government could be persuaded to engage in meaningful negotiations to obtain sanctions relief, Ramsey said.
Pompeo’s statement on Monday listed five “key areas” as necessary for free and fair elections. None of them dealt with Maduro’s role, leaving the door open for eventual participation. “The window is small, fading, but the door hasn’t closed completely,” Ramsey said.
López Maya, on the other hand, has a more pessimistic outcome in mind. “I don’t see the logic behind government pressure,” she said. “Even by stealing elections and winning the National Assembly, what are they doing? What’s coming the day after? More conflict and division and Venezuela are tired of it.”