A series of international powers have condemned a major power grab in Venezuela as an undemocratic coup d'etat. The Supreme Court stripped the opposition-controlled congress of all legislative power.
Opposition groups blocked a major highway in capital Caracas on Friday in response to the power grab
The United Nations humans rights chief, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, expressed "grave concern" on Friday at the ruling by Venezuela's Supreme Court to strip congress of power and strongly urged it to reconsider its decision.
He said that a separation of powers was essential for democracy to function and that keeping democratic spaces open was essential to ensuring that human rights were protected in Venezuela.
Spain, the main intermediary between Latin America and the European Union, warned that democracy could break down after the Supreme Court seized power from the opposition-led legislature.
"If the separation of powers breaks down, democracy breaks down," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned on Twitter.
Germany attacked Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro, saying, "It is intolerable how President Maduro is making the population of his country hostages to his own power ambitions."
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Friday urged the country to "return to democratic principles and the separation of powers."
Opposition lawmakers tore up copies of the court ruling after their last remnant of power was stripped away from them
Point of no return
On Wednesday, the court, widely held to be loyal to Maduro, ruled that lawmakers were in contempt of court for not abiding by past rulings nullifying legislation coming out the National Assembly, and that the court would seize the Assembly's powers.
"As long as the National Assembly's contempt of court and invalidity persist, parliamentary powers shall be exercised directly by (the Supreme Court's) constitutional chamber or by the body it designates to safeguard the rule of law," it said late Wednesday night.
The move came after more than a year of political crisis between the Socialists and the opposition in the oil-rich Latin American state, where an economic meltdown fueled shortages of food and medicine and triggered riots.
"This isn't any old sentence. It marks a point of no return on the road to dictatorship," said Freddy Guevara, the number two leader in congress.
The power struggle began when the opposition won control of the legislature by a landslide in 2015 and started a campaign to force Maduro from office.
Emergency meeting of powers
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, called an emergency meeting and released a statement echoing claims by Maduro's opponents of an internal "coup d'etat."
"The unconstitutional decisions by the (Supreme Court) to strip parliamentary immunity from the members of the National Assembly and assume the legislative function are the latest actions taken by the authoritarian regime to subvert the constitutional order in Venezuela and eliminate all semblance of democracy," Almagro's statement said.
He said he "denounces the self-inflicted coup d'etat 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."
Serious setback for democracy
The US State Department reiterated its call for Maduro to free political prisoners and hold immediate elections to resolve the crisis, saying the court decision to "usurp" the National Assembly's powers represented a "serious setback for democracy in Venezuela."
Regional powers Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile and others warned the escalation was a threat to democracy in Venezuela.
Brazil's foreign ministry said it was "a clear break with constitutional order."
Scores of Maduro's opponents blocked a highway in the capital, Caracas, on Friday, starting what activists said will be rolling street protests against the ruling Socialists.
"Today in Venezuela, we've woken up blocking streets," said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro.
aw/kl (AFP, Reuters, AP)