When Nicolas Maduro Was Dictator for a Day

The Venezuelan leader’s decision to abruptly reverse his blatant power grab has sent the country spiraling into chaos once more.

Demonstrators march during an opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela.
Demonstrators march during an opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela.  (Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters)

I first met Luis Miquilena in Caracas back in October of 2015. At 96, Miquiliena, the man who presided over the creation of Venezuela’s current constitution following Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1998, remained almost uncannily lucid. He also maintained a penchant for Cuban cigars, which he would theatrically stab into the air to emphasize particularly revolutionary statements. Upon learning I lived in Chicago, he smiled broadly and told me he was rooting for the Cubs to win the World Series—a byproduct, he assured me, of his longstanding Marxist affinity for lost causes.

Miquilena was wrong about the Cubs, who did win the World Series just weeks before his death, but nearly everything else he said to me that day has proven remarkably prescient. At the time, Venezuela’s opposition seemed poised to win big in the upcoming legislative elections. If it prevailed, it would mean that for the first time in that constitution’s history, the legislature and the presidency would be held by different parties, potentially reintroducing the separation of powers that had crumbled under Chávez and his struggling successor, Nicolás Maduro. I had sought out Miquilena to glean what such a change might look like in practice. He wasn’t optimistic.

During those heady days of incipient revolution, Miquilena recalled, “we really thought of Chávez himself as the government.” As a result, he explained, Venezuela’s constitutional drafters designed a system aimed at facilitating “full societal transformation,” even if enhancing presidential prerogatives might undermine a workable separation of powers further down the line. Should the legislature go rogue in 2016 and defy Maduro, he figured, the system would break down completely, requiring the seven magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court—assuming it remained loyal—to overextend its authority, gradually establishing a parallel structure to fill the void left by an increasingly sidelined national legislature. “My constitution has been the most violated in Venezuela’s history,” he told me sadly. “There’s no salvaging it.”

I have thought of my conversation with Miquilena often in recent days. On March 29, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, freshly packed by Maduro with hardline loyalists just before the new legislature took office in January 2016, released a controversial decision to hold the opposition-dominated National Assembly in “contempt of court,” formally usurping its functions until further notice. The decision to dissolve a duly elected legislature triggered a flood of domestic protest and international opprobrium denouncing the move as a de facto coup. The next day, Maduro—the main beneficiary of the move—suddenly “interceded” to undo it, convening an emergency late-night dialogue, after which the court rescinded a portion of its ruling on the morning of April 1.

A frustrated, authoritarian-leaning executive unilaterally dissolving a hostile legislature is not a terribly unusual phenomenon in Latin America. Yet this one in Venezuela was unusual. Previous “self coups” in Latin America were unique in their own ways, but they all irreversibly sundered the constitutional order. But for a president or his loyal judiciary to willfully dissolve the constitutional order only to abruptly reverse course when the decision proves unpopular is unprecedented. Such ruptures have always been triggered by a specific, acute crisis. In this case, there was no such trigger. What’s more, Maduro’s government had no need to formally disband the legislature: Attempts by the opposition to pass laws over the past year have been consistently struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and the ever-increasing scope of its rulings has allowed it to essentially legislate in its own right, neutering oversight functions, indefinitely suspending gubernatorial elections, allowing Maduro to pass budgets unilaterally, and blocking a presidential recall referendum.

In this manner, and in keeping with Miquilena’s prediction, the government has settled into a kind of unconstitutional equilibrium. Absent a functional legislature, the government has fumbled along, even as declining oil prices and hemorrhaging levels of popular support (Maduro’s approval rating has sunk to around 22 percent) have plunged it into a state of perpetual damage control. Scrambling to pay off growing international debt burdens, alleviating harrowing food and medicine scarcities, and keeping the ascendant opposition at bay (while preserving some modicum of international legitimacy), Maduro’s government has persevered by keeping most pre-existing policies in stasis and relying on the courts to legitimize one-off solutions as it plays for time.

In this most-recent instance, the Supreme Court decision that precipitated Venezuela’s ephemeral coup sought to allow the executive to circumvent existing restrictions on investments in the hydrocarbon sector. According to Francisco Monaldi, a Fellow at Houston’s Baker Institute and one of the foremost experts on Venezuela’s oil sector, the timing of the ruling was intended to facilitate a deal with the Russian oil giant Rosneft to increase its stake in a joint venture. But Venezuela’s constitution restricts certain types of foreign investment, such as the majority-foreign ownership of oil projects, and delegates the review of such agreements to the National Assembly. “The government has been aggressively pushing such deals for a while,” Monaldi told me, “but international investors, even the Russians, are concerned about the survival of its commitments should Maduro lose power.”

At first blush, this decision resembled the many pseudo-legislative, unconstitutional court decisions from over the past year. Where it differed: a single line of text near the bottom of the ruling, declaring that the National Assembly’s authority would be transferred to the court. Legislative power, until further notice, would reside within the judiciary. Maduro’s coup didn’t sideline the elected legislature, per se—that had already happened—but, rather, formally establishing its irrelevance ex ante. This made all the difference.

The backlash to the initial ruling was immediate, with Attorney General Luisa Ortega, long rumored to be at odds with Maduro, openly breaking with him and denouncing the decision as a disruption of the constitutional order. Venezuela’s opposition leaders likewise cried foul in an overlapping cavalcade of press conferences and tweets, some discordantly calling supporters to the streets.

The United States and Latin America’s major powers, which had largely stood by as the newly elected National Assembly was incrementally neutered, now universally condemned the formal usurpation of legislative authority by the court; Peru went so far as to formally recall its ambassador from Caracas. The Mercosur trade bloc began openly discussing Venezuela’s expulsion. And the Organization of American States, which has long considered sanctioning Venezuela, only to be held back by a cadre of small, pro-Maduro Caribbean states that had benefitted from the Revolution’s petro-largesse, was suddenly compelled to advance the process. An adverse OAS decision could doom Maduro: Venezuela, with its an anemic agricultural and manufacturing capacity, a casualty of a century of oil dependency, relies heavily on trade with its neighbors to sustain itself. Should political isolation disrupt regular food imports, extant scarcities would deepen, thereby exacerbating urban unrest and posing an existential crisis his regime.

To stave off disaster, Maduro’s regime and the judiciary moved quickly. The court removed the offending sentence from its decision (leaving the rest of the ruling intact). Maduro invited Ortega to talk things over, signaling a return to normalcy. The regime’s vast diplomatic and propaganda apparatus has spun the affair as a minor misstep by his overzealous magistrates, swiftly rectified by Maduro himself.

By selling the aborted self-coup as a mere domestic spat, the Maduro regime has muddied the waters. The international furor has been abating and Venezuela’s micro-Caribbean allies at the OAS have been provided with sufficient cover to continue protecting him. To Maduro’s dwindling faithful and remaining international allies, the entire affair was blown out of proportion by the global imperialist international media and governments. China, a key ally, blithely described the crisis in state media as “a recent impasse that occurred” between that Supreme Court and attorney general, one that had likewise been “corrected in time.”

If Maduro’s goal all along had been to try to renew his personal brand by drawing international attention away from a chronic socio-economic crisis he couldn’t solve and towards an acute political crisis he could, it would not be the first time. To those unfamiliar with Venezuela’s ongoing political disaster and the unconstitutional coziness between Maduro and the judiciary—which over the last dozen years and nearly 50,000 decisions has never ruled against the presidency—such a narrative may  suggest that Venezuela remains capable of carving out its own solutions, unaided.

It’s not. Since last week, incidents of public unrest and protest have become ubiquitous in Caracas and other major cities. If not as large as some other demonstrations in recent years, they have been growing in size and intensity, with protesters hurling stones (and occasionally makeshift incendiaries) at security forces seeking to suppress them with teargas and water cannons. The opposition has promised further protest, and chaos may well spiral.

According to the aforementioned “imperialist” media, Maduro’s blunder is the latest step on the road to his regime’s inevitable collapse. But this interpretation minimizes the enabling role of the international community’s ongoing “wait and see” policy that has failed the anguished people of Venezuela.

Since his successful intervention, an unusually conciliatory Maduro has offered to hold further dialogue with the opposition to smooth the ongoing rupture. In the past, such talks, like the Vatican-sponsored meeting last year, have sapped popular momentum, buying Maduro breathing room and leaving the opposition nothing to show for its efforts but another missed opportunity and a further-dejected base. Even so, the international community tends to defend dialogue on principle; should the world’s attention now shift from Venezuela, then time may be on Maduro’s side even as Venezuelans themselves increasingly make clear they oppose him.

Maduro’s rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to how his tightly controlled national institutions have cracked down in the past week. While downplaying the civil strife officially, both on the streets and institutionally, government forces have given no quarter. This past Friday, Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of populous Miranda state and a two-time presidential candidate, was stripped of the ability to hold office for a period of 15 years on supposed allegations of bribery. In the past, such individual reprisals against key opposition leaders, such as the arrest of Leopoldo López during a period of violent protests in 2014, have served to sow disunity among Venezuela’s fractious opposition but likewise risks exacerbating popular outrage.

We may never know the full backstory to Maduro’s ephemeral coup of 2017, but—unless the world takes the time and energy to see past the revolution’s theatrics—it will have been a trivial historical anecdote rather than a watershed: an autocratic lightning strike that generated great heat and noise before disappearing just as quickly.