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April 18, 2019

Context is Critical

Mr. Juan Guaido's claim to being the interim President of Venezuela is based on one sentence from Article 233 of Venezuela's 1999 constitution. It reads:

(1) Pending election and inauguration of the new President, the President of the National Assembly shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.

On its own, (1) is clear; it puts Mr. Guaido in charge of the Presidency. However, the sentence immediately preceding (1) is:

(2) When an elected President becomes permanently unavailable to serve prior to his inauguration, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days.

It follows that (1) only applies if an elected President becomes permanently unavailable. The paragraph that immediately precedes (2) defines that term by listing six events that would render the President permanently unavailable.

(3) The President of the Republic shall become permanently unavailable to serve by reason of any of the following events: death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.

None of these events has occurred yet; sentence (1) does not now apply.

Further, (2) contains the condition “prior to his inauguration”. Mr. Maduro was inaugurated before the Supreme Tribunal of Venezuela on 10 January 2019. If any of the events listed in paragraph (3) had occurred subsequently, the applicable sentences would have been those appearing immediately after sentence (1).

(4) When the President of the Republic becomes permanently unavailable to serve during the first four years of this constitutional term of office, a new election by universal suffrage and direct ballot shall be held within 30 consecutive days. Pending election and inauguration of the new President, the Executive Vice-President shall take charge of the Presidency of the Republic.

In other words, if Mr. Maduro becomes permanently unavailable, the constitution designates the Executive Vice President as the person that takes charge.

Some supporters of Mr. Guaido do not recognize the constitutional bodies that appointed Mr. Maduro and claim that there was no President after January 10. Article 233 assumes the existence of a President; by applying it, his supporters are accepting that there is one. If there is none, Article 233 cannot be applied.

There may be good reasons to ask Mr. Guaido to act as interim President but they are not in Article 233. Those who cite one sentence taken out of context are deliberately being disingenuous.

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