Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Monday approved the ouster of a prominent opposition lawmaker from the country’s National Assembly, a move that critics say undermines the rule of law and will only fuel more violence.
Venezuela’s highest court backed the removal of Maria Corina Machado, one of the top leaders of protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s regime that have resulted in nearly 40 deaths. The demonstrators—protesting against the country’s soaring crime rates, inflation, and shortages of basic goods—blame state security forces and pro-government militias for the majority of deaths.
Machado was removed for speaking at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., last month in violation of Venezuela’s constitution, the court said.
The OAS, which has been criticized for its pledge not to "intervene" in Venezuela, voted to keep the meeting private and only allowed Machado to speak during a part of the session devoted to ad hoc issues.
Still, members of Maduro’s Socialist party said the constitution mandates that Machado should have asked for congressional approval first. National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello said Machado is now stripped of her legislative immunity and might be investigated for "treason to the fatherland."
Machado remained defiant on Tuesday, writing on Twitter that she is a "deputy today more than ever" and that she will continue to serve until the Venezuelan people forbid her.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in a statement.
"Today is an especially grievous day for those who support liberty and rule of law in Venezuela, as the highest kangaroo court backed the Maduro regime’s repressive decision to strip Maria Corina of her legislative seat," she said. "In doing so, the court proved that it is nothing more than a political tool of Maduro used to advance his own political ambitions, attack the opposition and silence those who oppose him."
Human rights groups say the court’s ruling against Machado is just the latest example of the lack of separation of powers in Venezuela. Former longtime strongman Hugo Chavez urged lawmakers to stack the courts with loyalists.
"Politicization of the judicial branch increased dramatically under Chávez, and high courts generally do not rule against the government," wrote pro-democracy group Freedom House in its 2014 report on Venezuela.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, said in an interview that the current protests were in part sparked by the lack of outlets for the opposition to voice their opinions. Chavez’s legacy was "hollowing out" all democratic institutions, including the courts, legislature, electoral authorities, and media, he said.
Maduro said last week that he would be open to a "good faith witness" to mediate talks with the opposition.
However, Cardenas said the announcement was likely a stalling tactic.
"This is mostly for international consumption," he said. "Maduro doesn’t need a dialogue with the opposition to understand what their grievances are—their grievances are quite easy to ascertain by reading a newspaper."
It remains unclear who would represent the opposition at the potential talks. Machado faces the threat of imprisonment, top protest leader Leopoldo Lopez has already been jailed, and moderate opposition figure Henrique Capriles told Buzzfeed in a recent interview that all political prisoners should be released before a dialogue starts.
The protests began in early February when youth reacted to the sexual assault of a female student on a college campus. Protesters have since expanded their list of grievances to include the country’s worsening economic problems and Maduro’s close ties to Cuba.
"Nobody in the opposition has the power to turn these protests on and off," Cardenas said. "This is more of a mass movement that really has no leaders."
Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) have continued to push for sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in the crack down on protesters. A top State Department official said last week that sanctions such as U.S. visa bans and asset freezes could be an "important tool" to employ against Maduro.
Rubio last week urged the Obama administration to support sanctions similar to those imposed against Russian officials involved in the invasion and annexation of Crimea.
"Sanctions against Maduro and his government would have dramatic impact because all those people who are around him that are getting rich off of this regime, that are supporting these abuses so they can stay in power and keep making money, they all have bank accounts and restaurants and businesses and mansions in the United States of America," he said during a Senate floor speech. "And if you support this, this government should sanction you."