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Sparking outrage, Venezuela's supreme court usurps congressional role

Venezuela's supreme court has ruled that it would assume legislative responsibilities of the opposition-led congress, a move seen by critics as a bid to put in place a dictatorship in the politically charged country.

The constitutional chamber of the country's Supreme Tribunal of Justice on March 29 authorized President Nicholas Maduro to create oil joint ventures without the approval of the National Assembly, which it ruled was in 'contempt.' It instead directed President Maduro's administration to report to the court itself on any ventures established or modified.

"We warn that as long as the situation of contempt in the National Assembly continues, this constitutional chamber guarantees congressional functions will be exercised by this chamber or another chosen body," the court said.

Since opposition legislatures won control of the national assembly in 2015, the supreme court has repeatedly struck down the majority of the legislative body's decisions; however, the latest ruling marks the first explicit move by the judicial branch to usurp its authority.

Opposition leaders charged that the court decision signifies efforts from the Maduro government to install a dictatorship. "This unconstitutional sentence that we reject ... cements another step in the dismantling of Venezuela's democracy," the opposition said in a statement. "This government is dying, and that's why it's turning to these desperate measures."

Speaking at a press conference, National Assembly President Julio Borges reportedly accused Maduro of carrying out a "coup d'etat." He called the court ruling "trash from people who have kidnapped the constitution, rights and freedom of Venezuelans."

The ruling comes on the heels of a decision by 20 members of the Organization of American States to call on Venezuela to improve its democratic standards. Venezuela is under threat of being suspended from the organization in a vote set for June, though such a move requires the support of two-thirds of OAS' 34 active member countries.