CARACAS, (Reuters) – Venezuela’s powerful attorney general on Friday rebuked the judiciary’s takeover of congress, breaking ranks with President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government as protests and international condemnation grew.
“It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order. It’s my obligation to express my great concern to the country,” said Luisa Ortega, usually considered a key ally of the Socialists who have ruled Venezuela for the last 18 years.
While various prominent political figures have leveled criticism after leaving the government, it is extremely rare for a senior official to make such criticism. It may be interpreted by opponents that Maduro’s internal support is cracking.
From early morning, several dozen students marched in Caracas to the Supreme Court, which this week assumed the functions of the opposition-led National Assembly.
They were pushed back by soldiers with riot shields.
Small pockets of protesters also briefly blocked highways around Caracas, waving the Venezuelan flag and banners reading: “No To Dictatorship.” Police moved them on.
“We have to demand our rights, in the streets, without fear,” said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro, who led a knot of demonstrators into a subway train.
Having already shot down most of the National Assembly’s measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro court this week said it was assuming the legislature’s functions because it was in “contempt” of the law.
Outraged foes said that was a “coup” against an elected body.
Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and self-declared “son” of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected in 2013 amid widespread support for the ruling Socialist Party’s oil-fueled welfare programs.
But his ratings have plummeted to just over 20 percent as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines and the highest inflation in the world.
Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an “economic war”. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.
The Supreme Court’s move also brought condemnations and concern from the United States, Organization of American States (OAS), European Union, major Latin American nations and the top U.N. human rights official.
Ally Russia, however, bucked the trend in a statement on Friday urging the world to leave Venezuela alone.
“External forces should not add fuel to the fire to the conflict inside Venezuela,” it said. “We are confident in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.”
Maduro accuses Washington of leading a push to topple him as part of a wider offensive against leftists in Latin America. Brazil, Argentina and Peru have all moved to the right recently.
However, new U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have other priorities or has not yet fully formed policy on Venezuela.
OAS head Luis Almagro, whom the Venezuelan government views as a pawn of Washington, has been pushing for its suspension from the 34-nation regional bloc and wants an emergency meeting after the latest developments.
But suspension appears unlikely, diplomats say, given Venezuela’s support from other leftist governments and small nations who have benefited from its oil largesse.
“It’s false there has been a coup d’etat in Venezuela,” Venezuela’s foreign ministry said, alleging a regional right-wing conspiracy.
“On the contrary, institutions have adopted legal correctives to stop the deviant and coup-seeking actions of opposition parliamentarians openly in contempt of decisions by the republic’s maximum tribunal.”
Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity coalition, made up of about two dozen parties and groups, declared itself in “permanent session” and promised rolling street protests.
But the coalition is hobbled by disunity: leaders called at least four separate overlapping news conferences on Friday.
Opposition supporters are also acutely aware, however, that street tactics have failed on numerous occasions.
Vast rallies in 2002 helped briefly topple Chavez, but he was back about 36 hours later after his supporters poured onto the street and military factions came to his aid.
In 2014, hardline opposition activists led months of protests, but they turned violent and led to 43 deaths, their leader Leopoldo Lopez was jailed, and Maduro consolidated power.
Then last year, hundreds of thousands marched, but still authorities thwarted the opposition’s push for a referendum to recall Maduro and also postponed local elections.
The opposition is hoping the military – whose top ranks still pledge absolute loyalty to Maduro though there is believed to be dissent lower down – may nudge him into bringing forward a presidential election slated for the end of 2018.
But there is no public sign of that happening.
“Given that the government controls all the state’s institutions, including the armed forces, the security apparatus is likely to strongly repress protesters with opposition leaders facing higher detention risks,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the IHS Markit consultancy.
The Supreme Court’s contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though they no longer sit in Congress, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case legally.