Venezuela's Supreme Court has ruled that it can take over responsibilities assigned to congress in what opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are decrying as the latest attempt to install a dictatorship in the South American nation.
In a decision late Wednesday night, the magistrates said that as long as lawmakers remain in contempt of past court rulings nullifying all legislation coming out of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the high court can step in and assume congressional duties itself.
Peru's government immediately recalled its ambassador in protest and condemnations poured in from several regional governments. The head of the Organization of American States called for an emergency meeting to deal with what he called a "self-inflicted coup d'etat" by Maduro against the congress.
Julio Borges, the assembly's president, said that while past decisions had stripped power from congress, this move allows Maduro to rule by fiat. Several opposition leaders called for a new round of demonstrations, although recent attempts to apply street pressure on the government have failed to attract a large following.
"Maduro is now the National Assembly," Borges told The Associated Press. "It's one thing to try and build a dictatorship and another to complete the circuit."
It was not immediately clear, however, what practical impact the ruling will have.
Maduro has jailed scores of opponents and ridden roughshod over lawmakers' powers ever since the opposition swept congressional elections by a landslide in 2015 and immediately set out to remove the socialist leader from office through a recall referendum. The high court a year ago issued an order automatically nullifying all legislation coming out of congress, and earlier this week it moved to limit lawmakers' immunity from prosecution.
But foreign governments are increasingly taking notice of the shift toward authoritarian, one-party rule. Earlier this week, diplomats from the hemisphere gathered at the Organization of American States in Washington to debate whether to punish Maduro for breaking the democratic order and rule of law.
There was no consensus on a proposal by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to suspend Venezuela, but the tension-filled session, in which Venezuela's representative hurled insults at other diplomats, ended with a pledge by 20 nations to closely watch the situation and take steps to ensure the government engages in dialogue.
A smaller group of 14 governments, including the U.S., have also called for immediate elections to resolve the stalemate. Maduro's government last year cancelled a recall referendum seeking to remove him from office before his term ends in 2019 and suspended gubernatorial elections the opposition is heavily favored to win.
Almagro, in a statement, said the Supreme Court's latest moves lacked even the most basic guarantees of due process and violated Venezuela's own constitution as well the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which the late Hugo Chavez helped to promote.
"Unfortunately, what we had warned has now come to pass" he said, calling for yet another meeting of the OAS' top-decision making body to discuss the crisis. "We have an obligation to the people of Venezuela to act without further delay. To be silent in the face of a dictatorship is the lowest indignity in politics."
Wednesday's surprise ruling stemmed from congress' refusal to authorize a joint venture with private companies by Venezuela's state-run oil company.
State media on Thursday took a far different tone, saying the court's ruling was not seeking to supplant congress but rather guarantee the rule of law so long as congress remains obstructionist, refusing to sign off on a budget and key economic decisions Maduro says are needed to overcome widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.