(CNSNews.com) – Venezuela lurched deeper into crisis Thursday after the government-controlled supreme court stripped the elected legislature of its lawmaking powers, prompting the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) to decry a “self-inflicted coup” and describe Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist regime as a “dictatorship.”
“We have an obligation to the people of Venezuela to act without further delay,” said Luis Almagro after the court action. “To be silent in the face of a dictatorship is the lowest indignity in politics.”
“Venezuela’s top court takes actions to preserve rule of law,” was the AVN state news agency’s portrayal of the move by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, which declared the National Assembly to be in contempt of its rulings.
It was the latest in a long series of government actions designed to counter the opposition, whose December 2015 parliamentary election victory ended 16 years of National Assembly control by the socialist ruling party of Maduro and his late predecessor, the U.S.-baiting populist Hugo Chavez.
An attempt last year to hold a recall referendum against Maduro was blocked when the national electoral council, controlled by loyalists of the president, cancelled the process, alleging fraud.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Thursday called the court ruling a “rupture of democratic and constitutional norms” and “a serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”
“With this blatant violation of the constitution, Venezuela sure looks like a full-fledged dictatorship,” commented House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “I urge regional leaders to unite, both with words and action, to condemn Maduro’s systemic drive to squash all opposition.”
The court action was a finger in the eye of the OAS, whose member-states held two days of extraordinary sessions in Washington this week to discuss the Venezuelan crisis.
Twenty members of the 34-country bloc signed a declaration pledging actions – not spelled out – to “support the functioning of democracy and respect for the rule of law.”
The OAS is entitled to suspend a member if two-thirds of its membership believes a country has violated the organization’s Democratic Charter, but calls by Almagro for Venezuela to be suspended were not successful, and no vote was called.
(The OAS suspended Honduras after a military coup in 2009, and Cuba in 1962 following the communist takeover.)
The U.S. delegate, Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Fitzpatrick, told the gathering that “President Maduro should permit the democratically-elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, and should hold elections as soon as possible.”
The U.S. also called for the immediate release of political prisoners including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been incarcerated since early 2014.
Venezuela’s conduct at the OAS sessions, where it attempted to have the meeting canceled altogether, also drew criticism. At one point Mexico’s permanent representative demanded that the chair ask Venezuela’s deputy foreign minister Samuel Moncada to adjust his tone.
“The government of Venezuela resorted to procedural antics, ad hominem insults, and a combative stance,” a senior State Department official told a background briefing afterwards.
“But they failed in both of the sessions to prevent member-states from stating their concerns about the state of Venezuela’s democracy and failed to prevent member-states from proposing means by which the OAS can now support a peaceful resolution to the situation in Venezuela.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told a press conference in Caracas Thursday that the government, supported by “progressive” allies in the region, had headed off an “imperial offensive” at the OAS.
“We fought a battle, defended our homeland, defended the nation,” AVN quoted her as saying. “We want to thank those countries that remained standing, which did not bow down to the pressures and blackmail that were imposed by Washington.”
Venezuela won the backing of traditional left-wing allies including Bolivia and Nicaragua, but also drew support from some members of the Chavez-created oil alliance Petrocaribe, including El Salvador, Haiti, Dominica, Dominican Republic and Barbados.
“Our region has changed, because there is something called dignity,” Rodriguez said. “For those who from the empire [the Venezuelan government’s preferred epithet for the U.S.] want to impose themselves through blackmail and threats, there is a Latin American and Caribbean region telling them that such actions no longer work.”
Rodriguez declined to attend the extraordinary session in Washington this week, although she did pay a visit to the OAS one day earlier.
On Tuesday, Maduro called on “the people” of Venezuela to debate the relevance of the country’s participation in the OAS and the organization’s “validity and usefulness.”