LATIN AMERICA

The frantic search for the 99th deputy

Government files criminal charges against opposition lawmaker in hope of taking her seat Maduro needs a three-fifths majority for special executive powers

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.MIGUEL GUTIÉRREZ / EFE

After weeks of evaluating various strategies to allow President Nicolás Maduro to obtain a clear majority in the National Assembly so that he can legislate with special executive privileges, his supporters may have reached their objective at the expense of an opposition lawmaker.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz asked the Supreme Court to open pre-trial proceedings for impeachment against National Assembly member María Mercedes Aranguren, who has been under investigation for embezzlement of public funds and committing other crimes through a state-owned real estate company.

Aranguren was a member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) until 2011 when she joined a small party, the Everyone Wins Independent Movement (Migato), set up by former Monagas state governor José Gregorio "Gato" Briceño after he had decided to join forces with the opposition Unified Democratic Panel (MUD) in parliament.

The late President Hugo Chávez called Briceño a traitor and expelled him from the PSUV.

PSUV and its allies don’t have the necessary three-fifths majority needed

Aranguren served in Briceño’s administration in Monagas, as president of a company created by the local government that oversaw the building of a giant stadium in the state capital Maturín. The 52,000-seat stadium was specifically built to host the Copa América soccer championship in 2007. But now there are not enough spectators to fill even one-tenth of the stadium when the local team plays. The state government has announced that it will use the venue for concerts to attract international artists.

Prosecutors believe that Aranguren presided over a ghost company, which illegally signed contracts in dollars without the central government’s authorization, and that was later liquated by the governor.

There are very strict government currency exchange controls in Venezuela.

In an interview with the Caracas daily El Nacional, Briceño, who now lives in Costa Rica, said Aranguren was able to obtain the dollars through an official mechanism that existed up until 2010.

Some weeks back, Maduro announced that he would ask the National Assembly for special executive powers to legislate without having to go through the country’s lawmakers. But the PSUV and its allies don’t have the necessary three-fifths majority needed to approve this type of request: they hold 98 of the 165 seats.

Since then, the government has experimented in many ways to win that 99th seat.

“I have the 99th lawmaker, and you know for what reason,” Maduro said publicly last Friday while addressing an entirely different issue.

It only emerged on Wednesday that the government plans on using Aranguren’s alternate, Carlos Flores, to occupy her seat while she goes on trial.

On September 24, Aranguren publicly denounced that several deputies from the ruling party had offered to have her case “shelved” if she voted in favor of Maduro’s initiative.

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