The Venezuelan Supreme Court's decision late Wednesday to take control of the opposition-controlled legislature has set off a wave of outrage, with some hemispheric neighbors, including the United States, Mexico, Peru and Argentina, denouncing the measure as a threat to democracy.
The Organization of American States' secretary general, Luis Amalgro, accused the government led by socialist Nicolas Maduro of attempting "a self-inflicted coup d'etat" against its parliament. He called for an emergency meeting of the organization's Permanent Council, just two days after presiding at an extraordinary meeting in Washington about Venezuela.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned the court for its "decision to usurp the powers of the democratically elected National Assembly. … We consider it a serious setback for democracy."
Peru pulled its ambassador Thursday in protest, and countries including Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Chile also denounced Venezuela's high court.
In a wide-ranging ruling, the court criticized the National Assembly for what it called "disrespect and invalidity of its proceedings." It said as long as that persisted, "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."
"Maduro is now the National Assembly,'' assembly leader Julio Borges told The Associated Press. "It's one thing to try to build a dictatorship and another to complete the circuit."
The court decision followed Tuesday's rare meeting of the OAS, which brought diplomats to Washington to debate how to resolve the South American country's years-long political and humanitarian crisis.
Almagro — who detailed the country's problems in a 74-page report issued in mid-March — had recommended suspending Venezuela's membership in the group unless it quickly released political prisoners and scheduled long-delayed elections, but the United States urged giving the country another chance to cooperate on re-establishing democratic norms. The U.S. was one of 20 member states that committed to taking as-yet-uncertain steps in guiding Venezuela toward that goal.
Hours before the court decision was announced, Eustoquio Contreras, a legislator and deputy of the pro-government Polo Democratico party, defended Maduro.
He told VOA in a phone interview that "we are seriously threatened in our institutions. The government has had to choose to govern by decree and the extraordinary way, because the opposition has not ceased to advance its own interests."
Contreras also told VOA that Maduro "is a well-intentioned man who is making a great effort to solve the problems." He inherited "many difficulties" after his 2013 election to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, Contreras said.
A constitutional expert said Wednesday's ruling enables the government to suspend elections, detain deputies and withdraw Venezuela from the OAS.
"This is not an ordinary sentence," said Luis Salamanca, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. He told El Nacional newspaper that the ruling gives Maduro the power to "practically handle everything without any respect for the rules set out in the charter."
The National Mesa Bureau, an opposition group, condemned the court's decision as a flagrant violation of the constitution.
The bureau said in a statement that the government had resorted to "desperate measures." It said that through "legal aberration, the Constitutional Chamber urges the president to review criminal and even military laws under the state of emergency," allowing him to more directly attack the democratically elected National Assembly and its leaders.
In Washington, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio told VOA that "what exists in Venezuela today is not democracy."
Reflecting on Tuesday's OAS session and representatives' stances on Venezuela, the Florida Republican added, "I thank the countries like Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Honduras and others that have been clear in their position, and I think it is unfortunate that countries like the Dominican Republic, Haiti and El Salvador have used that [session] as an opportunity to defend the tyranny of Maduro."
VOA Spanish service's Gioconda Tapia Reynolds, Alejandro Escalona and Gesell Tobias contributed to this report.