Venezuela Weekly: Government Gambit Leaves Venezuela with Two National Assembly Directorates

Venezuela’s political situation decayed even further this week as the Maduro government pushed to seize control of the National Assembly rather than allow National Assembly president Juan Guaidó be elected to a second term.

(See explainers from AP, the Financial Times and the International Crisis Group. See also this extended video interview in Spanish between Luz Mely Reyes and Eugenio Martínez.)

In a confusing and tumultuous series of events, on Sunday, January 5 Guaidó and many other opposition legislators were prevented from entering the Legislative Palace and former opposition deputy Luis Parra was declared the new National Assembly president, but apparently without quorum and without a clear vote. Parra is one of the legislators that was named in a corruption scandal in December in an investigative report published by Armando.info and subsequently thrown out of the First Justice party (see backgrounder here).

Juan Guaidó and his directorate denounced this maneuver as a coup against the National Assembly and later that day held a session in the auditorium of opposition newspaper El Nacional. There 100 deputies voted for Guaidó, clearly passing the bar. However, this number included some of the substitute deputies for those who supported Parra earlier in the day (see Jose de Bastos’ count here).

On Tuesday the 7th, Guaidó and opposition’s deputies managed to push past securities forces outside the Assembly and enter the legislative palace where he took oath as president of the Assembly. That was a significant symbolic victory for Guaidó, especially if it is contrasted with the image of Mr. Parra that presided a brief Assembly session without quorum before Guaidó and his allies entered the building.

It is important to realize that this is not the division that has existed in recent months between the majority faction of the opposition and those who have been negotiating with the government, commonly referred to as “la mesita.” Some of the latter openly rejected this move. Rather this is a new group, some of whom were involved in the scandal in which they were accused of being bribed to write letters for people involved in government food importation corruption. For this reason they are referred to as “The CLAP combo” referring to the government’s food program: the Local Production and Distribution Committees (CLAP). See TalCual explainer here.

Whatever the case, Venezuela’s National Assembly now has two directorates. Luis Parra’s cannot produce a vote tally that shows it is legitimate and cannot reach quorum (84 present) to hold session (De Bastos suggests they could have received 71 maximum. Here Parra suggests they are going to find the video to confirm they had the votes) but has the Maduro government’s support. Juan Guaidó’s directorate has legitimacy of origin and has quorum, but does not control the actual space of the National Assembly.

International condemnation was swift. The Lima Group, U.S. and European Union all condemned the seizure, as did the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More surprising, perhaps was that even Mexico and Argentina had strong words.

The events seem to have provided the opposition with a rallying point, and perhaps an opportunity. But it is not clear how long this will last until the realities of institutional power set in (see Bloomberg Opinion here).

Apparently the gambit was not quite pulled off with the elegance the government had in mind. Diosdado Cabello suggested that this was actually a fight between two factions of the opposition and that could allow the Maduro government to pull back from this. More likely, however is that that Supreme Court (TSJ) rules in favor of the Parra directorate, suggesting it indeed had quorum and the votes.

The push surprised many insofar as the Maduro government seemingly had the Guaidó-led opposition headed towards an existential test without a strategy—legislative elections that will take place this year. Among the possible reasons analysts have suggested are:

  • Maduro´s people thought Parra had the votes and when it became clear he did not, they shut down the AN to not allow Guaidó and the others enter.
  • With the U.S. and Europe preoccupied with Iran Maduro and company saw the opportunity for a shortcut to consolidating power.
  • The Maduro government needs to control the National Assembly to gain control of foreign assets as well as to be able to sign more gas and oil deals with Russia.

Church

  • The Pope encouraged Venezuela’s conflicting political forces to continue to seek an agreement.
  • The Venezuelan Episcopal Council—its Catholic Church hierarchy—denounced the seizure of the AN as “another kidnapping of democracy.”

Social Media

 Human Rights

  • In apparent concession, Maduro’s government announced the release of 14 more political prisoners. Non-govenrmental organization Foro Penal said in its latest report that by the end of 2019, there were 388 political prisoners in Venezuela.
  • According to data by Monitor de Víctimas, between January and November 2019, there were 317 executions from state forces in the five municipalities of Caracas. FAES (Special Action Forces) committed 70% of these killings.

Migration

  • U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and local partners in Ecuador are implementing an interesting refugee integration and poverty prevention program known as the Graduation Model. “The programme aims to support the most vulnerable refugees—including single mothers, large families, and those who lack a support network in their host country.”
  • By December 2019, 4.7 million Venezuelans have left the country according to U.N. data. Migración Colombia informed that as by the end of October 2019, a total of 1,630,903 Venezuelans were living in Colombia, of which 719,189 have legal status and 911,714 do not.
  • In an editorial, the Financial Times, suggests that “Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has long ceased to be a regional affair. It deserves a rapid global response proportionate to its size and international importance”.

Economy

  • Bloomberg reports that while Venezuela’s economy is increasingly dollarized, there is no banking system to store or process them. Some business owners end up storing large amounts of cash in the homes.
  • Reuters reports that Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA is letting some joint venture partners take over the day-to-day operation of oilfields.