The Supreme Court on Wednesday dealt a setback to the opposition of President Hugo Chavez, suspending a referendum on his rule scheduled for next month.
The court issued a temporary injunction to the National Electoral Council to halt all activities surrounding a nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule, which the opposition had hoped to hold Feb. 2.
The court said it would review the referendum to determine whether it was legal.
"Today they have made the dictatorship official," said Julio Borges of the Justice First party, which played a lead role in collecting signatures and promoting the referendum. "The government doesn't want elections, it doesn't care what the people want ... it only cares about staying in power."
Chavez welcomed the decision. The left-leaning president has long argued that the referendum was an unconstitutional attempt to force him from power and that he would ignore its results.
"The Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court has made a decision today that the whole country was hoping for, to put things in their place, to strengthen the institutions," Chavez said, speaking at the inauguration of his newly appointed army commander.
It was unclear what immediate effect the court's decision would have on the opposition and its determined effort to force Chavez out. The country is now in the seventh week of a punishing strike, which has cut deeply into oil production by one of the United States' largest suppliers and has resulted in long lines for gasoline, cash and food.
Some opposition figures have said privately that such a referendum, designed to embarrass Chavez into resigning, would only complicate efforts to arrive at a negotiated solution to the crisis. A strong vote against Chavez would weaken him at the table and encourage hard-liners to abandon the talks.
Those talks received new force Tuesday when former President Carter delivered two proposals to break the impasse. One proposal called for a constitutional amendment that would cut Chavez's term and result in new elections. The second, favored by Chavez, would result in a recall election in August as spelled out in the Venezuelan Constitution.
Wednesday's court decision upheld a temporary injunction filed by three pro-Chavez lawmakers who said the referendum was illegal. The electoral council said it would abide by the ruling.
The Chavez lawmakers argued that the electoral council's board of directors was unfit to make decisions because one of its five members, Leonardo Pizani, had close links to the opposition. The court said the referendum would be suspended "until the present controversy is resolved," though it was unclear when that would be.
Another complaint has been filed by the government with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court regarding the validity of the referendum question, which asks voters whether Chavez should resign immediately.
"This is a very tough blow to the opposition because they had put so much hope into the [nonbinding] referendum," said Gustavo Linares, a constitutional lawyer.
Also Wednesday, the government suspended all dollar transactions for five business days in an effort to stem the freefalling bolivar currency, which lost 46% of its value last year and has plummeted about 25% more since Jan. 1.
Finance Minister Tobias Nobrega said the government was studying "urgent measures" and would announce a new exchange rate system next week.
Miller is a staff writer and Ixer is a special correspondent.