(Reuters)

Outraged ­opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro denounced him as a full-fledged dictator Thursday, after his allies on the supreme court stripped the country’s parliament of its power.

Maduro has essentially ruled Venezuela by decree since late 2015, when his unpopular government was trounced in parliamentary elections and his opponents took control of the National Assembly. Since then, they have been systematically blocked by Venezuela’s supreme court, which Maduro has stacked with loyalists.

But after the court ruled late Wednesday that lawmakers were acting in contempt of its orders, the judges formally took away their powers, saying the court or “another chosen body” would assume responsibility for writing Venezuela’s laws.

A group of opposition lawmakers scuffled with police outside the court Thursday, accusing Maduro’s government of carrying out a “coup.”

“This is a dictatorship, and Venezuela needs the world’s help,” said National Assembly leader ­Julio Borges, ripping up the judges’ order and calling it “garbage from those who have kidnapped the constitution and the rights and freedoms of the Venezuelan people.”

An opposition supporter holds a Venezuelan flag with a sign that reads “No more dictatorship” during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

The Venezuelan government’s latest step toward autocracy drew criticism and reproach from other Latin American nations, led by Peru, which recalled its ambassador in a show of protest. The U.S. State Department said it condemned the court’s ruling. 

“This rupture of democratic and constitutional norms greatly damages Venezuela’s democratic institutions and denies the Venezuelan people the right to shape their country’s future through their elected representatives,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. “We consider it a serious setback for democracy in Venezuela.”

Maduro, 54, was handpicked as successor by President Hugo Chávez before his death from cancer in 2013. Maduro narrowly won election later that year, but the oil-dependent country has plunged deep into crisis since then, with alarming shortages of food and medicine. 

Instead of moderating his hard-line views, Maduro and his ruling United Socialist Party have dug in and lashed out.

The court’s ruling came a day after it stripped lawmakers of immunity from prosecution, a possible prelude to new arrests. Opposition leader Leopoldo López has been held in harsh conditions at a military prison since leading anti-government street protests that erupted in violence in early 2014. He is serving a 14-year term.