SAO PAULO – The founding members of the South American trade bloc Mercosur indefinitely suspended on Saturday leftist-led Venezuela, whose government has been widely criticized for creating a new legislative body with wide-ranging powers.
Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes said in a press conference at the Sao Paulo mayor’s office that he and his colleagues from Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay had unanimously decided to apply Mercosur’s Ushuaia Protocol on Democratic Commitment, known as the “democratic clause.”
That protocol states that “fully functioning democratic institutions are an indispensable condition for the existence and development of Mercosur.”
Venezuela’s government has come under fire internationally for its decision to form a Constituent Assembly to revise the nation’s 1998 constitution and re-found the country’s institutions.
That body’s 545 members were sworn in on Friday and in its opening session on Saturday they voted to oust Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, who in recent months has become an outspoken critic of President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government.
The July 30 election of the Constituent Assembly’s members followed months of violent anti-government protests that have left 121 dead, nearly 2,000 injured and 5,000 arrested.
The opposition seemed to have turned the political tide in Venezuela when it won an apparent supermajority in December 2015 legislative elections, but the unicameral National Assembly was subsequently rendered powerless by a Supreme Court ruling last year stripping it of its budgetary authority – the high court has said the legislature is in contempt for seating lawmakers accused of fraud.
The opposition has also been stymied in its attempt to organize a recall referendum to oust Maduro from office.
Nunes said Saturday’s move by Mercosur was intended to politically isolate Maduro’s administration, but that no trade sanctions were planned.
The foreign ministers said in a statement that the suspension would only be lifted once the four countries determine that the democratic order has been restored in the Caribbean nation.
In justifying the decision, Nunes said Mercosur countries face sanctions under the bloc’s Ushuaia Protocol if they fail to live up to their democratic commitments.
“The Ushuaia Protocol has no provision for expulsion, because we want Venezuela to return (as a full member) and we expect it to return. We’re going to closely monitor how the situation unfolds and express support for permanent dialogue.”
Referring to a decision by Mercosur in late 2016 to suspend Venezuela, Nunes said that on that occasion the move was taken over the country’s failure to adopt protocols required under the bloc’s membership rules and not because of violations of the Ushuaia Protocol.
He added that Venezuela’s government would be officially notified of the decision by Mercosur’s Secretariat.