CARACAS, Venezuela – The National Assembly, dominated by the opposition majority, has rejected Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s economic emergency decree, which would have allowed him to rule by decree for a period of 60 days on economic issues as Venezuela experiences its most turbulent period since the early 1990s as the price of oil, its most prized commodity, continues to plunge.
The announcement of the measure came just before Maduro’s annual State of the Union speech, which was delivered before a National Assembly that was filled with an opposition majority for the first time since 1999.
The points outlined that the government has the power to revise the national budget, establish measures to avoid endemic tax evasion, expedite the processes of importation of necessary products and supplies (by suspending certain customs requirements and fees), jumpstart national production by major industries and incorporate small and medium producers at every level and make certain exemptions in monetary exchanges.
The decree itself was then to be debated upon and approved or rejected by the unicameral National Assembly and the Constitutional Court. Although the latter gave their green light, the National Assembly did not follow suit.
One of the members of that legislative body and prominent opposition figure, Julio Borges of the center-right Justice First (PJ) party, said that the opposition bloc “could not allow the same errors that brought us into this crisis to be committed again.”
José Guerra, also of the PJ and head of the National Assembly’s 16-member committee that closely scrutinized the decree, said that it would be “impossible to adopt a decree of this magnitude,” and his words were echoed by the head of the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, who also heads the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition.
Indeed, the MUD voted to reject the decree; 107 opposition representatives voted against the measure while 53 pro-government representatives voted for the decree.
“The plan put forth by President Maduro is not an effective formula to deal with the enormous problems that plague our national economy and it does not meet the prerequisites needed to provide our nation with a stable macroeconomic and fiscal future,” the opposition said in its rejection statement.
Guerra said he spent several days in the political chambers working with experts, researchers and economic specialists from various universities and other accredited institutions in the country, all of whom he said claimed that Maduro’s decree would not help to re-energize the national economy.
“We reject this decree because it is more of the same. The same policies that have produced this issue will produce more of the same results. It is as simple as that,” argued Guerra.
The rejection of the decree was not only produced by the opposition’s ideological differences, but also due to the fact that several MUD members said this decree would be only “salt in the wounds.”
The reason for this, they say, is because Maduro already has the executive power to do what he wants due to laws passed in the last two years. Thus, the actions he intended to take during the emergency decree could come about anyway through presidential actions that do not need the approval of the National Assembly (with the exception of very minor budgetary changes).
On the other side of the political aisle, the MUD’s rejection of the decree did not go over well, as expected.
Héctor Rodríguez, the head of the National Assembly’s caucus of The Great Patriotic Pole, a coalition which consists almost exclusively of Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), said that the MUD’s statement is full of “half-truths, lies and contradictions” and that the opposition rejected the decree “only for purely political reasons.”
Elías Jaua, a prominent PSUV representative and former Vice-President (2010-2012) and Foreign Minister (2013-2014), lamented the MUD’s rejection of the decree.
“President Maduro sought to count on the solidarity of the National Assembly to face this problem generated by the steep fall of oil and its effects, but the opposition unfortunately showed that they will not cooperate for the good of the Venezuelan people,” Jaua said.
“The opposition showed even more evidence that they came to power not to help the people but to overthrow the democratically-elected and legitimate government of President Nicolás Maduro,” Jaua said in reference the opposition’s oft-repeated plans to oust Maduro before his mandate expires in 2019.
Maduro himself aid he attempted to convene a last-minute meeting between the government and the 16-member MUD committee before a decision was to be made, but the latter chose not to attend and kept Maduro and his ministers waiting for hours. For their part, the opposition said they did not attend because the government did not allow press into the meeting.
“Unfortunately, the majority of the National Assembly decided to turn their backs on Venezuela,” Maduro said in response to the MUD and opined that the opposition instead “decided to put on a show of sterile confrontation” between the legislative and executive branches.
The frustration of Maduro and the PSUV makes sense given that, according to Ramus Allup himself, there is already a known plan in the works to remove Maduro from office in the first half of 2016. The head of the National Assembly has said he will try to recall Maduro and remove him through “peaceful, constitutional and democratic means.”
The voters are more likely to back a recall referendum if the situation continues deteriorating and actions to mend the situation are stifled, thus appearing to the populace that nothing is being done by the executive to improve the lives of Venezuelans.
Given the blow the voters gave Maduro and his party in December’s parliamentary elections, however, perhaps his mandate would not remain intact even if the decree was approved.
Regardless, given the sharper words used by Ramos Allup in recent days about ousting Maduro after using a more cooperative tone last week, the government has used the opposition’s statements as evidence that they are simply interested in killing time until the recall effort can be organized.
“Are we going to sit by and watch while Venezuela falls apart? Are we going to endure three more years of burning in our own oil? No, this is very irresponsible to me. What is the next leader going to inherit in three years? A cemetery,” said the usually combative and verbally aggressive Ramos Allup shortly after the rejection of the decree.
As such, the situation now is what was feared before: a standoff between Maduro’s executive branch and Ramos Allup’s legislative branch, the “sterile confrontation” as described by the former that could lead to clashes on the streets if recent times are an indicator.
In the December election, the PSUV lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). Led by the iconic Hugo Chávez, his “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.
Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the party, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.
For those same reasons, various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.
López, who was already banned from serving in a public office in 2008 after he orchestrated similar demonstrations that ended in violence, was a decisive character among the opposition. With a shady past as he was implicated for receiving illegal promotions and kickbacks within the state oil company due to his mother’s long-held political connections, and his fiery anti-dialogue demeanor, López divided the opposition.
In September of 2015, López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for his part in the disturbances after having been detained at the Ramo Verde military prison in the interior of the country, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Greater Caracas in the town of Los Teques, since February 18 of 2014.
After López’s sentence, however, the fractured opposition only further unified and solidified their respective voting blocks for December’s ultimately successful elections. The MUD is planning to propose a bill very soon that will seek to free “political prisoners” across the country including López, a bill that will surely raise tensions between the powers yet again.