OAS head accuses Venezuela's Maduro of 'self-coup'

Venezuela's Supreme Court has announced it is taking over the functions of congress due to "contempt" by opposition lawmakers, sparking accusations that socialist President Nicolas Maduro has become a dictator.

But in a statement released shortly after, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, called on Venezuela to "permit the democratically-elected National Assembly to perform its constitutional functions, hold elections as soon as possible, and immediately release all political prisoners".

"We denounce the conspiracy by the region's right-wing to attack Venezuela's democratic system", Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said on Twitter.

There was swift global condemnation of the de facto annulment of the National Assembly, where the opposition won a majority in late 2015 amid an unprecedented economic crisis that has seen Maduro's popularity plummet. That investigation is ongoing and the opposition has said the court is simply trying to rob them of their super majority.

"In Venezuela there is no Constitution, today Nicolas Maduro has all powers illegally granted him by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court", said Assembly majority leader Julio Borges.

"This completely takes out the rug from under the people who argue that in Venezuela there is a balance of powers and that there are checks and balances", said Geoff Ramsey, a research associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court authorised Maduro to create joint oil ventures without congressional approval.

The judges, seen as supporters of President Nicolas Maduro, have annulled numerous assembly's decisions and claims it did not properly deal with a vote-buying scandal.




"We have to call this what it is; this has no other name than a coup and a dictatorship", added the opposition leader.

Maduro has accused opposition lawmakers of treason for asking the Organization of American States to consider suspending Venezuela for violating democratic norms.

Popular Will, a leading opposition party, called for public rallies, although million-strong street protests have repeatedly failed to produce any change.

"This government is dying, and that's why it's turning to these desperate measures".

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.

While some investors could see the Supreme Court sentence as giving them the green light to invest, others are increasingly anxious about Venezuela's murky legal framework.

As Venezuela tries to raise funds for bond payments and a reeling economy, it has sought to sell stakes in oil fields.

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