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Venezuela’s Maduro Talks of Shutdown of Opposition-Controlled Congress

In this Jan. 14, 2016 photo, Venezuelan National Assembly lawmakers vote during a session in Caracas, Venezuela.

In this Jan. 14, 2016 photo, Venezuelan National Assembly lawmakers vote during a session in Caracas, Venezuela. Fernando Llano / AP

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro and his party are talking about shutting down the country's congress that opposition lawmakers took over in January and that Maduro has sidelined.

Dealing with the lawmaking body filled with political opponents has been an irritation for Maduro, whose approval numbers languish in the low 20 percent range. With the help of the Supreme Court, he's managed to nearly neutralize it.

"What has congress done these past six months? Wreak destruction. Prepare to say goodbye to history, because your time is coming," Maduro said in a televised address last week.

RELATED: Venezuela Opposition Controls Congress After 17 Years

The Maduro administration controls Venezuela's courts, electoral officials, much of the national press and the police. But the congress still enjoys great public support, even though it's functionally weak. Congress President Henry Ramo enjoys 60 percent approval, making him the most popular politician in Venezuela.

"Congress has become not just a space for ideas to be aired, but also it has become a very popular political institution," Javier Corrales, who teaches Latin American politics at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Maduro seems willing to take the risks of domestic anger and international condemnation that would be associated with closing congress, an idea that many Venezuelans have already called an attempted "self-coup."

Just Wednesday, the U.S. House approved a three-year extension of legislation authorizing sanctions against government officials and others who violate human rights in Venezuela and commit violence against peaceful protesters. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., began in the Senate and won its approval in April. Lead sponsor in the House was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. The legislation is awaiting President Barack Obama's signature.

"As the Venezuelan people are deprived of liberty, protest the lack of food or necessary supplies available, and live through a deteriorating economy, we should keep up the pressure on the oppressors by freezing assets and removing visas of human rights violators in Maduro’s regime," Ros-Lehtinen said.

File photo: Venezuela Bolivarian National Police officers guard outside of Venezuela's National Assembly building.
File photo: Venezuela Bolivarian National Police officers guard outside of Venezuela's National Assembly building. Fernando Llano / AP

Corrales said Maduro and other Venezuelan leaders might think they can afford the international backlash.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro flashes the victory sign to the media next to her wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2016.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro flashes the victory sign to the media next to her wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2016. CARLOS JASSO / Reuters

"Others might label them as anti-democratic," he said. "They simply respond by saying that they are at war against oligarchs who are blocking the people from governing, and that's the end of that."

Such a move could further inflame Venezuelans already on edge after weeks of daily food riots that have led to deaths and hundreds of arrests.

RELATED: Hungry Venezuelans Take Desperate Measures in Worsening Crisis

The millions of Venezuelans who want the socialists out of power are growing frustrated. With the congress blocked from legislating and Maduro saying he will not allow a recall referendum to proceed this year, the opposition feels increasingly shut out of the political arena.

Opponents of Maduro's government took control of the legislature for the first time in 17 years in January after winning a landslide victory. They tore down the oversized portraits of late President Hugo Chavez hanging in the neoclassical capitol and distributed videos of them being carted away. For Venezuelans, that jubilant moment has come to feel like the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad - a victory celebration that turned out to be premature.

Since then, the Supreme Court has issued at least 16 decisions chipping away at lawmakers' power. The court blocked the opposition's central pieces of legislation, including a bill that would have freed imprisoned opposition activists, and more neutral-seeming bills, such as a proposal that would have given the elderly more access to food stamps.

On Tuesday, Maduro injected politics into the country's independence day celebration. He declined to attend the congressional celebration. Instead, he held his own festivities. Lawmakers were not invited.

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