Venezuela’s political conflict became even more twisted this week, as Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the US and a majority of Latin American governments as the legitimate leader of the country, saw his position as head of the National Assembly challenged by former opposition deputy Luis Parra.
In a move backed by Nicolás Maduro’s government, which controls Venezuela’s military as well as the country’s Executive functions, Parra was reportedly voted on January 5 as the new Majority Leader, while several opposition lawmakers denounced that they were stopped from entering the building by the country’s security forces. Parra was a member of the opposition party Primero Justicia until less than a month ago, but was ejected from it after allegations of corruption and secret ties to the Maduro administration.
The legality of Parra’s election was immediately questioned by Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition and the countries aligned with them, but more interestingly as well by Argentina and Mexico, whose governments’ stances on the Venezuelan conflict are usually more neutral.
The National Assembly is the only branch of the government where Chavismo doesn’t hold a majority. Its deputies were voted during the 2015 parliamentary election, arguably the last clean and open national election seen in Venezuela, which the opposition won through a unified coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).
The opposition’s victory in 2015 was so large that the MUD was close to securing two-thirds of the National Assembly, a unicameral legislative body, enough seats for a constitutional amendment and other massive reforms that would have hampered the chavista administration.
The government, however, contended that four of the assembly’s 167 seats were obtained amid election irregularities in the Amazonas region, leading to a clash at the courts over whether the opposition really controlled two thirds of the assembly, and ultimately to Chavismo’s unilateral creation of a new legislative body with the power to overrule the National Assembly in 2017.
The creation of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly in 2017 and a 2018 presidential election in which Maduro was re-elected amid allegations of fraud and with the main figures of the opposition banned from participating led to the current dual power situation: Chavismo controls most areas of government and argues that the Constituent Assembly overrides the National Assembly, while the opposition says that Maduro’s term ended after the illegitimate 2018 elections, and the next in line according to the constitutional line of succession should be the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó.
That claim of presidential legitimacy is the reason why the position as the head of the National Assembly is so important, even if its powers have been curtailed by the creation of the Constituent Assembly. Chavismo is looking to reclaim full power while the opposition holds on to it as a platform to denounce the government and to try to limit the scope of its control.
A week-long clash
After Sunday’s clash, opposition deputies improvised a gathering at the offices of newspaper El Nacional and voted for Guaidó to continue as the top authority of the National Assembly, totaling more votes than those backing Parra earlier in the day.
Parra had first claimed to have 84 votes, and then cut that figure to 81, while also saying that the full list of deputies that had voted for him was not available at the time. The original voting session at the National Assembly was not captured on tape either, so the names of 81 people supposedly backing Parra are unknown. Guaidó, meanwhile, said he secured exactly 100 votes among the deputies present at the second voting session inside El Nacional’s headquarters. With the assembly housing a mere 167 deputies and the combined total of both sessions rising to 181, at least 14 deputies changing their vote or voting twice would be needed for figures to add up.
Despite the numerous irregularities, Parra showed up at the National Assembly on January 7, two days after the controversial vote, presiding over a session despite not reaching the necessary quorum of half plus one of the deputies that is legally required to open the meeting. Opposition members eventually stormed into the building and denounced that some seats were being occupied by people who were not even registered as deputies.
Later that day, Guaidó and the rest of the opposition organized a new session after managing to enter the building, this time with Guaidó instead of Parra at the head. The session took place in the dark, amid a power outage that the opposition denounced as sabotage.
The opposition took Guaidó’s swearing in on Tuesday as a victory, while Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a powerful figure within the military, took aim at them yesterday saying they were “fighting for an empty bottle”, dismissing the real power that the National Assembly holds.
Losing regional support?
Maduro and Cabello’s legitimacy has been repeatedly questioned both at home and abroad, but countries such as Uruguay and Mexico have always aimed at a neutral stance between the two factions in conflict, calling for a peaceful solution via clean, democratic elections without stating who the legitimate authorities should be.
With the victory of center-left Alberto Fernández in Argentina, the country joined Mexico and Uruguay in that neutral stance, in contrast with center-right Macri who favored Guaidó explicitly, in line with most Latin American countries. Others such as Cuba, Russia and China back Maduro as the legitimate president.
But Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina were quick to criticize Chavismo this time. “Forcibly impeding the Legislative Assembly’s functions is condemning oneself to international isolation. We reject this action and urge the Venezuelan executive to take the exact opposite road. The assembly needs to elect its president with full legitimacy,” Argentina’s Foreign Minister Felipe Solá said on the day of the original vote.
Mexico’s position was similar, while in Uruguay both the outgoing and incoming administrations agreed to condemn Venezuela’s Executive’s actions as well. The center-left Frente Amplio coalition had been criticized for being too soft on Venezuela, but Ernesto Talvi, who has already been named by President-elect Luis Lacalle Pou as his future chancellor, praised the “change” of the outgoing Frente Amplio administration. Although none of these three governments recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president, Uruguay is likely to start doing so after Lacalle Pou takes office.
“Argentina and Mexico will need to decide on what side of history they stand, whether they stand with the people or with imperialism’s bootlickers,” Cabello replied on his TV show Con el mazo dando.
Venezuela’s National Assembly is scheduled for a full renewal of its authorities at the ballot box later this year, but the opposition is skeptical of running again as it does not believe elections will be clean. That event is likely to be the source of new political clashes in a few months time.