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of the move—suddenly “interceded” to undo it, convening an emergency late-night dialogue, after which the court rescinded a portion of its ruling on the morning of April 1.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.