Caracas – Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Saturday retreated from a decision to take over legislative powers from the National Assembly, in what was seen as an attempt to tighter President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power.
“This controversy is over,” Maduro said just after midnight at a specially convened state security committee.
The committee ordered the top court to reconsider Wednesday’s court ruling, which effectively nullified the legislature and brought accusations the ruling Socialist Party was creating a dictatorship.
The tribunal duly erased two controversial judgments and its president, Maikel Moreno, met with both foreign envoys and journalists to explain the decision, insisting there had never been any intention to strip the National Assembly of its powers.
In a rare climb-down by the president’s allies, the pro-Maduro court backtracked from rulings that prompted opposition calls for mass protests in a volatile country stricken by economic and political crisis.
The Supreme Court said on its website that it was revoking a March 29 decision to take over legislative powers from the National Assembly, a move opponents had angrily branded as a “coup d’etat” and which drew international condemnation that raised pressure on the socialist leader as he clings to office.
It also revoked a ruling that stripped lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution. And it ended special powers it had conferred on Maduro over security legislation in the crisis.
Opposition assembly speaker Julio Borges dismissed the court’s gesture.
“Nothing has changed. The coup d’etat continues,” he told reporters.
Opposition groups went ahead with planned street rallies in Caracas on Saturday.
At a gathering of lawmakers on a public square in Caracas, opposition congressional leader Stalin Gonzalez said the assembly should move to suspend the judges.
That would be a difficult task, since it would require support from senior state officials who support Maduro.
“We want general elections, not dialogue,” said retiree Eugenia Salazar, 67, one of hundreds of people who attended the gathering.
The court “violated the constitution by trying to dissolve the parliament. Now they are going back on that, but this is still a dictatorship.”
After the gathering, participants tried to march to the state ombudsman’s office to lobby for his support. They were turned away by riot police who fired tear gas.
Maduro faced the strongest criticism ever from within his own camp on Friday when Attorney General Luisa Ortega condemned the court rulings as a “rupture of constitutional order.”
The court denied on Saturday that it had aimed to dissolve the legislature.
But it reiterated the original grounds for its ruling: that the assembly would be in contempt if it includes three opposition lawmakers whom the court has suspended for alleged fraud.
The court warned the assembly that it must ensure the “legal and legitimate” exercising of its functions.
Borges earlier called on the military and other institutions to follow Ortega’s example and speak out against Maduro.
Pressure against Maduro also increased abroad. In Washington, the Organization of American States (OAS) scheduled an emergency session for Monday to discuss the Venezuelan crisis.
Foreign ministers of the regional Mercosur bloc said in a joint statement after a meeting Saturday in Argentina that Venezuela must “ensure the effective division of powers” and “respect the electoral schedule.”
The foreign ministry in Caracas “categorically rejected” the Mercosur call late Saturday, slamming it as “comical interference aimed at undermining Venezuela’s sovereignty.”
The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won legislative elections in December 2015 in a landslide, but the court has since overturned every law passed by the current legislature.
Venezuela has the world’s biggest oil reserves, but the collapse in energy prices has sapped its revenues, prompting shortages of food, medicine and basic goods along with soaring violent crime and an inflation rate the IMF expects will reach 1,600 percent by year’s end.
Maduro is not up for re-election until October 2018, but he has been forced to fend off opposition efforts to call a vote on removing him from power.