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April 01, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro urged Venezuela’s Supreme Court early Saturday to review a decision stripping congress of its last powers, a ruling that set off a storm of criticism from the opposition and foreign governments.

The announcement came just hours before the opposition hoped to mount big protests against the socialist government, spurred by anger over the ruling. In an address early after a Friday night meeting presided over by Maduro, the National Security Council announced it was supporting a review by the court “with the goal of maintaining institutional stability.”

“April is starting on a good step,” Maduro said jubilantly surrounded by a dozen officials after the emergency meeting. “Constitutional victory!” Opposition leaders were quick to condemn the announcement as a ploy that did little to alleviate the crisis.

“Let’s be absolutely clear,” said Freddy Guevara, first vice president of the National Assembly. “A revision of a decision that leaves everything like before doesn’t resolve a coup.” The three-hour meeting capped an extraordinary day in which Venezuela’s chief prosecutor and long-time loyalist of the socialist government broke with the Maduro administration and denounced the court ruling. Luisa Ortega Diaz said it was her “unavoidable historical duty” as the nation’s top judicial authority to decry the ruling against the opposition-controlled National Assembly as a “rupture” of the constitutional order.

“We call for reflection so that the democratic path can be retaken,” she said to the loud applause of aides around her. Maduro convoked the National Security Council seeking to calm the political uproar, though at least one key member refused to attend. About a dozen officials were present at the session, but among those notably absent was congress president Julio Borges, who said the meeting was no more than a circus act created for a convenient photo opportunity by the same person the opposition blames for the country’s troubles.

“In Venezuela the only dialogue possible is the vote,” Borges said. Maduro, dressed in black and waving a small blue book containing the Venezuelan constitution early in the televised meeting, likened the international condemnation of this week’s Supreme Court decision to a “political lynching.”

On Friday, troops from the National Guard fired buckshot and swung batons at students protesting in front of the Supreme Court. A few people were arrested and some journalists covering the demonstration had their cameras taken. A few small protests popped up elsewhere in the capital.

Larger demonstrations were expected Saturday in what opposition leaders hoped would be a big turnout to denounce Maduro and call for elections. “We all have to get out — for the dignity of our country, the dignity of our children and the dignity of Venezuela,” Borges said in urging Venezuelans to join in protests Saturday.

The Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that until lawmakers abided by previous rulings that nullified all legislation passed by congress, the high court could assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition since it won a landslide victory in elections in late 2015.

Friday brought a second day of condemnations of the ruling by the United States and governments across Latin America. The head of the Organization of American States likened the decision to a “self-inflicted coup” by the leftist Maduro, and the United Nations’ top human rights official urged the high court to reverse its decision.

The OAS announced that it would hold an emergency meeting at its Washington headquarters Monday to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Opposition leaders, long-marginalized during the past 17 years of socialist rule, called on other public officials to follow Ortega Diaz’s example in repudiating the court’s ruling. Some urged the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, to defend the constitution drafted by late President Hugo Chavez.

“You have a new opportunity to show the country and international community if you are with the dictatorship or want your children and grandchildren to grow and live in a country where there’s democracy and liberty,” said David Smolansky, a Caracas area mayor.

The normally ever-present Maduro was conspicuously silent during much of the two days of turmoil, but then he went on state TV to argue that Venezuela’s institutions are operating normally. Alluding to criticism of the court’s ruling, he said it is the government’s “right-wing, fascist” opponents who are attempting to break the constitutional order, but said his foes would be left with “their cold champagne, uncorked.”

Still, Maduro also called for renewed dialogue between the government and the opposition, saying that is the only path to resolving Venezuela’s political crisis. “I’m ready with whoever is willing,” he said.

Colombia, Chile and Peru withdrew their ambassadors over the ruling. “This clearly destroys the most important pillar of any democracy, which is popular representation,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said.

The South American trade bloc Mercosur, which suspended Venezuela in December, called an emergency meeting for Saturday in Argentina. OAS will hold a special session Monday, Secretary General Luis Almagro said. Its two other meetings this past week ended with 20 governments led by the U.S. and Mexico voicing deep concern but no concrete actions to hold Maduro accountable.

Maduro’s government says the Supreme Court ruling isn’t meant to supplant congress but rather to guarantee the rule of law as long as legislators obstruct efforts to adopt a budget and make decisions on Venezuela’s slumping economy, which is beset with triple-digit inflation and food shortages.

“It’s untrue that a coup has taken place in Venezuela,” the government said in a statement. “On the contrary, the institutions have taken corrective legal action to stop the distractive, coup-like actions of an opposition that has declared itself openly in contempt of the decisions made by the republic’s top court.”

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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