Venezuela's Legislative Super Body Grabs Congress's Powers

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(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s new legislative super body took over the functions of the country’s only remaining opposition-run institution -- the National Assembly -- by approving a decree that empowers it to pass laws on a range of issues.

The 545-delegate so-called constituent assembly, or “constituyente,” packed with ruling socialist party loyalists, unanimously passed a “coexistence” decree, enabling it to create laws on everything from national security, economic policy and the South American nation’s finances. Delcy Rodriguez, president of the constituyente, promised the measure would bring peace to nation wracked by months of bloody protests and deep recession.

“This decree is to show the National Assembly that the people are in charge in Venezuela and they must respect them,” Rodriguez said as the measure was passed. “They are not concerned with the problems and concerns of our population.”

Decrying a legislative “coup,” the leadership of opposition-led National Assembly boycotted Friday’s session altogether, insisting it was yet another effort by President Nicolas Maduro to install one-man rule. The all-powerful constituyente was installed this month to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution and has since deposed some of Maduro’s most high-profile foes and opened investigations into several prominent lawmakers.

“Not only do they steal our responsibilities, but they assume them to convert themselves into a de-facto parliament without having been elected,” National Assembly President Julio Borges said in an interview. Congress has pledged to ignore the decree and plans to continue holding sessions in the capital’s gold-domed Federal Legislative Palace.

“The most dangerous thing happening is that under the rest of Latin America’s nose a Cuban model is being installed,” he said.

Escalating Confrontation

The measure caps a bitter year-long legislative battle. Venezuela’s dueling political factions have been at loggerheads since Maduro’s opponents wrested control of the legislature in a landslide election victory in 2015. Since then, the Surpreme Court, largely loyal to Maduro, ensured that the embattled president’s agenda prevailed by curbing the National Assembly’s powers and overturning almost all of its legislation.

In March, the nation’s top court was condemned internationally when it issued a ruling that sought to gut the legislature altogether and usurp its powers. Though the measure was scaled back, it served to ignite violent anti-government demonstrations that have claimed over 120 lives.

And while the opposition saw their legislative initiatives stymied and their efforts to unseat Maduro blocked, more recently they have been emboldened by efforts to deprive the cash-strapped government of international financing.

Opposition leaders have been urging Wall Street banks and international investors to use their financing leverage to pressure Maduro’s government as it scrambles to kick start a moribund economy and make good on billions of dollars in debt payments.

Read more: Why Venezuela Struggles So Hard to Avoid Default: QuickTake Q&A

For months, Borges and National Assembly’s financial commission have been resolute in their warning to lenders: Any new debt approved without congress’s approval would be considered illegal and future governments would not be obligated to honor it.

“This measure will slam the door shut on international financing,” Borges said. “As we warned before, the dictatorship is becoming a reality.”

It is unclear, however, how governments and international lenders will respond to Friday’s decree. Already, the constituyente has left Venezuela increasingly isolated in the region as governments -- from Canada to Chile -- have denounced the super body or refused to recognize altogether.

Still, the constituyente’s leadership has so far pushed back on claims it’s trampling on the separation of powers. “We have not dissolved anything,” Rodriguez said. “What we’re saying is they must change ways and respect the power of the people.”

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