Something ominous happened in Venezuela yesterday and it could have immediate implications for not only that country, but the rest of the world. The National Assembly was holding a meeting to elect their leadership for the final year of the congress’ current five-year term. But when Assembly Leader (and self-proclaimed interim president of the country) Juan Guaido and many of his supporters showed up for work, they were blocked from entering the palace by armed members of the National Guard bearing riot shields. Meanwhile, Assembly members who support dictator Nicolas Maduro were inside electing a new leader from the Socialist Party. (Associated Press)

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó was violently blocked Sunday from presiding over a special session of congress where rivals proclaimed a substitute leader — moves opposition officials condemned as a hijacking of the country’s last democratic institution.

Hours later, however, a majority of congress members held an emergency meeting at an opposition newspaper office and voted to reelect Guaidó as their leader.

Guaidó — whose legal challenge to the socialist government has been based on his role as head of congress — headed a small group of lawmakers trying to access the neoclassical palace where the opposition-controlled National Assembly was set to elect its leader.

This chaotic scene quickly turned into a quagmire. According to local news reports, Guaido and his supporters attempted to climb the fences, with the interim president shredding his business suit in the process. The thugs from Maduro’s National Guard still managed to prevent their entry. While the vote was going on inside the palace, the opposition retreated to the offices of a local newspaper and held their own election, once again selecting Guaido.

The increased number of legislators now supporting Maduro and this obvious coup in the legislature was reportedly a result of Maduro spreading around generous bribes to bring some of them over to his side. This would be not in the least bit surprising since corruption and graft have been hallmarks of his administration from the beginning.

In a more open and honest government, this mess would be meaningless. The Socialist Party didn’t have enough members present to hold the vote, to say nothing of physically blocking duly elected opposition party members from entering. At the same time, the vote held by the opposition really wasn’t valid either, largely for the same reasons. So there shouldn’t be a new leader at this point and Guaido would still retain the office by default.

But if Maduro’s supporters in the Assembly want to protest any challenges coming from the opposition they can take their case to the Supreme Court. And that court has long since been stacked with Maduro sycophants who do the dictator’s bidding rather than demonstrating any fealty to their country’s constitution. It’s not difficult to imagine them sanctioning the illegal vote and naming Guaido’s supposed successor as the legitimate Assembly Leader.

So why is this a huge problem? Because the only legal rationale Guaido has for declaring himself president is the clause in the constitution allowing the Assembly Leader to make such a declaration if the current president’s administration is determined to be illegitimate. If Guaido isn’t recognized as the Assembly Leader, he can’t make the claim of being interim president without looking like he was making an illegitimate power grab himself. His successor could either make that claim himself (unlikely in the extreme since he’s a Maduro supporter) or simply recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela. And all of the world leaders who recognized Guaido would need to withdraw their recognition or risk looking like hypocrites who are ignoring that nation’s constitution for their own purposes.

This is quickly becoming more and more of a mess. Venezuela has been in what is obviously a constitutional crisis for years now, but there is no external remedy available short of a military invasion. (And nobody wants that.) With the strong support of both Russia and China, Maduro appears to have outmaneuvered the opposition and kept his corrupt regime in control of the country.