This post has been updated, May 1, 5:20 p.m.
Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions. Pedro Rosas is a Venezuelan economist and a writer at the Caracas Chronicles.
For the past month, Venezuela has been spiraling down into a fresh phase of protest, violence and instability. This latest spasm of demonstrations and mass arrests began, oddly enough, with a court decision. On March 28, Venezuela’s chief justice, Maikel Moreno, issued a shockingly broad decision that essentially shut down the country’s elected national legislature and transferred all its powers to the court over which he presides.
The politics of this aren’t hard to figure out: the National Assembly is the one institution in Venezuela the government doesn’t control. The assembly was elected in late 2015, after public opinion had turned decisively against President Nicolás Maduro’s administration. That helps to explain why the opposition received a solid two-thirds majority in the legislature.
The government clearly could not let this state of affairs go unchallenged. And so Maduro turned to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Venezuela’s supreme court), a body that is controlled by the president.
To really understand the Venezuelan crisis, you have to start by wrapping your mind around this weaponized supreme court. The government first packed the Supreme Tribunal back in 2004, when then-President Hugo Chávez appointed 12 new solidly pro-government justices. Just to be on the safe side, though, Maduro — Chávez’s handpicked successor — recently decided to pack it again. The yes men appointed in 2004 were purged in late 2015 to make room for even more slavishly subservient judges.
Why this needed to be done was unclear at first. Between 2005 and 2014, the court packed by Chávez in 2004 didn’t rule against the government once in the 45,474 cases it heard.
Somehow even that wasn’t enough. After losing the 2015 National Assembly elections, Maduro forced 13 of the existing magistrates off the court, and had the lame duck assembly — which still had a pro-government majority — elect 13 new, much more militantly chavista magistrates. Out went the Tom Hagens, in went the Luca Brasis.
It has been widely reported that Moreno, a former intelligence agent, was tried and convicted of murder in 1987, though the corroborating documents from the court system are no longer available. (Moreno, it bears noting, has never denied this.) He spent just two years in jail before being released. He was then immediately implicated in a second killing, in 1989, for which he was charged but never tried.
You’d think having an an alleged murder conviction on your rap sheet might disqualify you from the bench, but not in Venezuela. In the 1990s, Moreno put himself through law school, and then — after Chávez came to power in 1998 — he launched his meteoric rise through the legal establishment. He did so largely by positioning himself as the most loyal player of the game, the guy the government could rely on to do things that would make other lawyers’ stomachs turn.
After the brief coup attempt that deposed Chávez for 48 hours in 2002, Moreno’s name turned up in a series of controversial, high-profile cases. First he served as the defense counsel for Richard Peñalver, a pro-government politician who was notoriously filmed firing a handgun at an opposition protest hours before the coup. In a bizarre twist, he was than appointed to the bench and ended up presiding over a case related to the same event.
Not surprisingly, Peñalver, the pro-Chávez gunman, was acquitted, while Moreno convicted a number of opposition-led police officers who were sent to suppress Peñalver’s fire. Charging into a dangerous situation, those cops probably saved many people’s lives that day. Even so, several of them remain in jail.
Moreno quickly became one of the government’s go-to guys in politically charged cases. When a high-profile, government-friendly prosecutor was killed by a car bomb, he was assigned to the case, even though witnesses reported seeing him emptying a safe full of cash from the dead prosecutor’s apartment after the attack. In a subsequent trial, the killing was blamed on the son of an opposition politician.
Moreno’s career as a judge hit a snag in 2007, when he was removed from the bench for “grave and inexcusable errors” after releasing two murder suspects against orders from the Supreme Tribunal. The government handed him a new job as a diplomat abroad. After a few years out of sight, he was appointed a supreme court justice in 2014.
Earlier this year, Moreno’s remarkable rise within the judiciary culminated with his appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Tribunal. Given his past, it’s amazing that he was ever appointed as a judge in the first place, let alone that he made it all the way to the top of the system. It turns out, however, that a convicted murderer with a scandalous legal career is just the kind of figure Maduro needed at a time like this.
So the next time you hear a news report on Venezuela’s “constitutional crisis,” remember what this is really about. It wasn’t a real court that opted to ignore the results of an election and grant itself powers Venezuela’s constitution reserves to the National Assembly. It was Maikel Moreno’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice that did that.
Correction: An earlier version of the post did not provided needed context when referring to a 1987 trial against Maikel Moreno, Venezuela’s chief justice. This version has been updated.