Venezuela Crisis Explained: Government Accused of Staging 'Self-Inflicted Coup'

venezuela protest
Deputies of the Venezuelan coalition of opposition parties, clash with Venezuela's National Guards during a protest outside the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas, Venezuela, March 30, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Opposition protesters began to take to the streets in Venezuela Thursday after the Supreme Court, comprised of loyalists of President Nicolás Maduro, seized legislative powers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The Supreme Court had ruled in January that the assembly was in contempt of the constitution, citing its failure to remove three lawmakers who were temporarily suspended for alleged voting irregularities. A recording purports to show the then-secretary of the government of Amazonas offering money to people to vote for opposition candidates in the state.

"As long as the disrespect and invalidity of the proceedings of the National Assembly persists, this Constitutional Chamber will ensure that the parliamentary powers are exercised directly by this Chamber or by the body it has in place to ensure the rule of law," the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

But critics say the move effectively gives the government license to write its own laws, taking the country a step closer to a dictatorship. The action was swiftly condemned by the opposition, the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) as the embattled president's latest power grab.

"The Secretary General of the OAS denounces the self-inflicted coup d'état perpetrated by the Venezuelan regime against the National Assembly, the last branch of government to be legitimized by the will of the people of Venezuela," read a statement from the OAS.

"Unfortunately, what we had warned has now come to pass" added the Secretary-General of the OAS, Luis Almagro.

The U.S. Department of State called the action "a serious setback for democracy in Venezuela."

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menedez (D-N.J.) released a joint statement condemning the move.

"Venezuela's democracy has been on life support for years now, but the decision to shut down the country's legislative body confirms our worst fears; Maduro is an unhinged dictator who has systematically dismantled democracy in this country," it read.

#Venezuela now officially a dictatorship after Supreme Court assumes powers of opposition-controlled congress

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 30, 2017

Maduro, who succeeded socialist leader Hugo Chavez following his death in 2013, has long accused the U.S. of attempting to undermine his government in coordination with the country's right-wing opposition.

The problems began for Maduro and the country with the rapid decline in global oil prices in 2014, which led to shortages of food and medicine and skyrocketing inflation. The opposition has pushed to have the country's leftist leader face a recall referendum.

venezuela protest
An opposition supporter holds a Venezuelan flag with a sign that reads "No more dictatorship" during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government, in Caracas, Venezuela March 30, 2017. Marco Bello/Reuters

But those efforts have been halted by the courts, most recently last October when it was ruled that several states had reported fraud in the first round of signature-gathering. The opposition was also thwarted in its efforts to put Maduro on trial.

Maduro, meanwhile, has arrested political prisoners and in January created an "Anti-Coup Commando." The following month, he ordered CNN's Spanish-language channel off the air in the country following the airing of a report linking him to an investigation into alleged fraud.

Opposition leaders have called for widespread protests Saturday and in the following week. However, similar calls to take to the streets have made little impact in recent months.