For the last year and a half, a second Venezuelan Supreme Court has presided over the country’s laws through the miracle of cloud computing. Its 33 jurists live in the U.S., Panama, Colombia and Chile. Every 15 days, they hold court via video conference.
Known as the Supreme Tribunal of Justice for Venezuela in exile, it has referred its country’s military leaders to the International Criminal Court at the Hague. It has also sentenced Nicolas Maduro, a man still considered Venezuela’s president by Russia, Cuba and China, to 18 years in prison. Until this week, few paid much attention to this court without a country. Its Twitter handle is not even verified.
This tribunal in exile is about to become more relevant. On Jan. 11, it urged Juan Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, to assume the interim presidency. And just as many democratic nations now recognize his legitimacy, there is momentum to recognize the exiled court, too.
Consider the Jan. 4 declaration from a group of 12 Latin American nations plus Canada, known as the Lima Group, which was formed in response to the Venezuelan crisis. It urged Maduro not to take the oath of office for a second term. It also affirmed the legitimacy of the tribunal in exile, asserting that it was “formed in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution.”
Carlos Vecchio, whom the U.S. recognized on Sunday as Venezuela’s diplomatic representative in Washington, told me in an interview that the interim government considers this Skype judiciary to be his country’s supreme court. The court, he said, has played an important role in guiding the National Assembly through the crisis and has “confirmed what we were doing is constitutional.” The tribunal’s chief justice, Miguel Angel Martin, told me that the court sees its role as “the guardian of the constitution.”
The tribunal had already ruled that Maduro’s May re-election was not legitimate. But Jan. 9 marked the end of his first term in office. That was the date when “the illegitimacy of Nicolas Maduro crystalized,” Martin said. The tribunal determined that the National Assembly should consider the presidency of Venezuela to be vacant, a precondition for invoking Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution, which made Guaido interim president.
This showdown goes back to 2015, when the opposition won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. Almost as soon as the results came in, Maduro and his party began to delegitimize the legislature. First his loyalists in the National Assembly packed Venezuela’s high court in a lame-duck session. Then those judges ruled that Maduro could resurrect a plebiscite originally formed to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution under his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. After this “constituent assembly” was formed, the Maduro-packed court invested the body with the powers of the National Assembly, which included appointing justices to the Supreme Court.
In 2017, Maduro decreed that he had the authority to rewrite the constitution. (This stands in contrast with Chavez, who changed the constitution through referendum in 1999 and tried and failed to do so again in 2007.)
In response, the National Assembly appointed its own justices to that court. Maduro threatened to arrest many of them, and the judges fled. Since July 2017, the full tribunal in exile, as well as its executive committee, has been meeting in cyberspace.
Now this high court is guiding a democratic transition in Venezuela, using a constitution amended to consolidate the Chavista revolution. It makes for a precious irony. “Maduro’s ouster from office will be the result of processes spelled out in the constitution promulgated by his predecessor,” says Thor Halvorssen, the Venezuelan-born president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Venezuela’s strong man, one might say, is being hoisted on his mentor’s petard.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.