Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro has seized control of the party of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, his latest attack on the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in December.
The government-controlled supreme court on Tuesday ousted the board of Mr Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and named José Gregorio Noriega, a lawmaker expelled from Popular Will months ago, as its new leader.
The court’s move followed similar action in June against two other opposition parties, Acción Democrática and Primero Justicia, and gives Mr Maduro and his supporters a clear path to seizing control of the National Assembly from the opposition in the election.
The EU imposed sanctions on Mr Noriega, along with 10 other pro-Maduro officials, last month with an asset freeze and travel ban for undermining democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela.
“With today’s decision . . . Maduro seeks to consolidate his model, a Cuban vision of a single party of the 21st century, where there is only the official party and parties supposedly of [the] ‘opposition’ but absolutely controlled by the regime,” said Carlos Vecchio, Mr Guaidó’s ambassador to the US and a leading member of the party.
If Maduro’s supporters win control of the National Assembly in December, Mr Guaidó’s claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader could be undermined. The US, the EU and most of Latin America have recognised him as Venezuela’s rightful interim president because he heads the National Assembly, the country’s last independent institution, and they say Mr Maduro stole victory in the 2019 presidential election.
“When a judiciary that answers to Maduro decapitates opposition political parties that represent dissenting voices, it undermines the rights of all Venezuelans, dispensing with even the pretence of a democratic process,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
In addition to its takeover of opposition political parties, the supreme court also appointed new directors to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), which oversees the elections. Appointments to the CNE should be made by the National Assembly, according to the constitution.
Mr Maduro’s revolutionary socialist government has presided over the almost-complete collapse of Venezuela’s once-wealthy oil economy, with gross domestic product shrinking more than two-thirds over the past five years and 5m refugees fleeing the country.
Crippling US sanctions aimed at forcing a change of regime have reduced oil exports to a trickle and blocked most international trade, forcing Venezuela to rely increasingly on its main international backers, Russia, Cuba, China, Iran and Turkey.
Amid widespread food and fuel shortages, the country has become dependent for survival on imports of petrol from Iran and Washington has threatened to block deliveries. Federal prosecutors filed a suit at the beginning of this month to seize tankers bound for Venezuela. Iran has said any seizure of its tankers would trigger retaliation.
The EU and Latin American nations attempted last year to broker talks between the Maduro government and the Guaidó-led opposition but these led nowhere and the prospects for fresh negotiations look bleak as the regime in Caracas tightens control.