CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's chief prosecutor broke with the government on Friday and rebuked a Supreme Court decision stripping Congress of its last vestiges of power, showing a crack in the unity of the embattled socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro as it came under a torrent of international condemnation over what many decried as a major step toward dictatorship.
In a shocking pronouncement, long-time government loyalist Luisa Ortega Diaz said it was her "unavoidable historical duty" as the nation's top judicial authority to denounce what she called 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 gathered around her.
The statement gave a major boost to the opposition, some of whom spent the day sparring with riot police and gearing up for what they hope will be nationwide protests Saturday.
The Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that as long as lawmakers remained in contempt of court rulings that nullified all legislation passed by the chamber, the high court can assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for nearly a year and a half.
The United States and governments across Latin America condemned the power grab, which the head of the Organization of American States likened to a "self-inflicted coup" by the leftist Maduro. The United Nations' top human rights official also expressed "grave concern" and called on the high court to reverse its decision.
Opposition leaders, long-marginalized during the past 17 years of socialist rule, called on other public officials to follow Ortega Diaz's example. They also urged the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, to break its silence and defend the constitution drafted by late President Hugo Chavez to which it swore allegiance.
"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.
Amid so much intrigue, the normally ever-present Maduro was conspicuously silent and by late Friday had not commented on the ruling, nor had leaders of his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. His foreign minister was forced to abruptly cancel a meeting with diplomats in the capital to explain the ruling after Colombia, Chile and Peru withdrew their ambassadors. The Mercosur trade bloc, which suspended Venezuela in December, called an emergency meeting Saturday in Argentina to discuss the crisis.
"This clearly destroys the most important pillar of any democracy, which is popular representation," said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who in the past has been reluctant to criticize Maduro, fearing a backlash against the millions of Colombians who live in Venezuela and in recent months have been flocking home in the face of the worsening economic crisis.
A day after the Trump administration strongly criticized the Supreme Court's move and called on Maduro to free political prisoners, the State Department pointed to the OAS as the best place to address concerns about Venezuela.
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis after two previous sessions this week ended with 20 governments led by the U.S. and Mexico voicing deep concern but no concrete actions to hold Maduro accountable.
"This is a decisive hour for the region," said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who met Friday with Almagro in Washington. We'll find out "who is with the people and democracy and who is with corruption and dictatorship."
In Caracas, national guardsmen in riot gear fired buckshot and swung batons at a group of students who gathered outside the Supreme Court. Several protesters were arrested and some journalists had their cameras seized. One journalist, from Colombia's Caracol Radio, was surrounded by a dozen military members who swung her around by her arms and legs, and appeared to hit and drag her.
Despite the sporadic flare-ups Friday it wasn't clear if critics of the government were in the mood for another street fight after past attempts fizzled or ended in bloodshed with little to show. Weeks of unrest in 2014 left more than 40 dead and dozens arrested, while a mass protest last September was followed a few days later by authorities cancelling a recall petition campaign seeking to force Maduro from office before his term ends in 2019.
What could be different this time is that Venezuela's economy is on its knees. Regional governments, as well as the Trump administration, seem far more engaged in seeking a solution to the political and increasingly humanitarian crisis that threatens to spill beyond the country's borders.
National Assembly President Julio Borges said Friday that while on previous occasions lawmakers in Venezuela have "tired their fingers" making phone calls to raise international awareness of what was occurring in Venezuela, the last two days have been the "complete opposite."
The world's leaders have been calling "not to ask what is happening, but to express solidarity," he said.
The Supreme Court's ruling and another earlier this week limiting lawmakers' immunity from prosecution capped a feud that began when the opposition won control of the legislature by a landslide in December 2015 and then mounted a campaign to force Maduro from office.
The leftist leader, who has seen his approval ratings plunge amid widespread food shortages and triple-digit inflation, responded by relying on the Supreme Court to unseat several opposition lawmakers and then issue an order nullifying all legislation passed by the National Assembly.
The government argues that the ruling was not seeking to supplant Congress but rather to guarantee the rule of law as long as legislators remain obstructionist by refusing to sign off on a budget and key economic decisions like a plan by Venezuela's state-run oil company to form joint ventures with private companies, including Russia's Rosneft.
"It's untrue that a coup has taken place in Venezuela," the government said in a statement Thursday. "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."
Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based pollster, said that while the ruling completely "pulverizes the separation of powers," Venezuela had long ago stopped operating like a normal democracy with a clear rule of law and independent institutions. He predicted the government would harden its position in the face of growing economic woes and international pressure, further dashing hopes for dialogue and an electoral solution.
"It's perfectly predictable that the government is going to keep radicalizing," he said.