Executives in Exile: Venezuela’s Missing Court

Throughout 2016, the United States’ presidential election featured vehement debates regarding the future of America. From immigration policies to abortion laws, no subject was left uncontested. Nevertheless, few topics seemed more heated than one in particular: the future of the U.S. Supreme Court. For America, a Supreme Court vacancy led to one of the most contested elections in American history, as it was clear that the victor would get to name the Court’s replacement, and therefore swing the Court into a more conservative or liberal leaning.

If the United State’s 2016 election proved anything, it was that the Supreme Court holds supreme importance to the nation and its future, and who controls the Court is even more important. Modeled after the American judicial system, Venezuela has seemed to have the same problem: a rancorous debate over which side controls the Court. However, instead of Democrats versus Republicans as the American system established, we see that Venezuela has shifted the parameters quite dramatically to the nation’s Socialist Party versus literally anyone else. Venezuela has faced a crumbling infrastructure and a general degradation of human rights, so it is quite evident that the necessity of their Supreme Court to cooperate is much higher. However, there seems to be one tiny problem to finding this cooperation: Venezuela’s Supreme Court doesn’t reside in Venezuela. It is in exile.

supreme court
The Venezuelan Supreme Court Building has been relatively unused since the Court’s outing in July. https://flic.kr/p/4wHZQM

To understand why the Court is in exile, you must go back in time, all the way to the beginning of Hugo Chavez’s presidency in 1999. Since Chavez’s rise and the rise of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSVU), the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice has been plagued by what some consider rampant corruption. In fact, the Human Rights Watch has claimed that Venezuela, in 2015, had the most corrupt judicial system in the world. So why is this? To put it simply, the PSVU and Chavez are the main roots of this corruption. For years, the Tribunal of Justice, as well as lower Venezuelan courts, have been stuffed full of pro-PSVU representatives, with anyone who questioned PSVU decrees being threatened with punitive action. Instead of actually ruling on laws and siding with justice, most courts became realms to uphold the United Socialist platform.

This indoctrination of the Venezuelan judiciary came to a head earlier this year in March when the Courts declared that they would take control of all legislative functions from the National Assembly. As the National Assembly had recently fallen under opposition control to the PSVU, many Venezuelans decried this move as not only a destruction of the balance of power, but another power move by Chavistas to control every government  organization. This ruling led to such protest and national outcry that the Supreme Court was disbanded, with the National Assembly reappointing 33 judges to take the previous judge’s Chavista-biased place. However, as the National Assembly represented one of the final vestiges of PSVU resistance, current Venezuelan president Nicolàs Maduro moved to arrest the newly appointed judges, claiming that they represented a treasonous usurpation of power. It seems evident, however, that this move was most likely one to cut away any body that could not be controlled by Maduro.

“There have been other governments in exile before,” said Rafael Ortega Matos, the court’s second vice president. “But a Supreme Court in exile is unheard of.” The court has been spread about numerous countries, with magistrates having fled to Columbia, Panama, and most recently the United States to flee threats of jail time.  The Court, which has regularly met on Skype, has vowed not to give up on the nation they have been forced to flee from, and has pushed for reform from the outside. Most recently, the Court has declared a new National Assembly, elected after the Court’s removal, to be illegitimate on the basis of fraud. Meanwhile, the Court has issued a series of other statements in support of the people of Venezuela, promising to protect their human rights and urging for peaceful protest of the Maduro dictatorship.

The question for the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice, however, is how to properly preside over a nation in which they are deemed criminals. With the rare backing of the United States (President Trump in fact commended a swearing in of Venezuelan magistrates in the United States), the Court seems to have the international backing needed to make it legitimate. However, if decisive action is not taken by the Tribunal, their words become what Maduro chalks them up to be: mere ramblings of exiles.

Edited by Benjamin Aloi