Top prosecutor out in Venezuela
She vows to fight back after ‘coup’
CARACAS, Venezuela — A newly installed constitutional assembly ousted Venezuela’s defiant chief prosecutor Saturday, a sign that President Nicolas Maduro’s government intends to move swiftly against critics and consolidate power in a fast-moving political crisis.
Cries of “traitor” and “justice” arose from the stately, neoclassical salon where 545 pro-government delegates voted unanimously to remove Luisa Ortega from her post as the nation’s top law enforcement official and replace her with a staunch government supporter.
They said they were acting in response to a ruling by the government-stacked Supreme Court, which banned Ortega from leaving the country and freezing her bank accounts while it weighs criminal
charges against her on allegations of irregularities.
Ortega fled her office straddling a motorcycle — squeezed between two bodyguards — after confronting security officers in riot gear. She was denied entry to the Public Ministry, which was taken over by the National Guard.
“Liberty has been lost in this country,” a shaken Ortega said.
Ortega, a longtime loyalist who broke with the socialist government in April, refused to recognize the decision and vowed to continue defending the rights of Venezuelans from Maduro’s “coup” against the constitution “with my last breath.”
“This is just a tiny example of what’s coming for everyone that dares to oppose this totalitarian form of government,” Ortega said in the statement she signed as chief prosecutor. “If they’re doing this to the chief prosecutor, imagine the helpless state all Venezuelans live in.”
Ortega has strongly criticized the government’s actions against pro-democracy demonstrators. More than 100 have died and thousands have been detained in four months of street protests.
Ortega said that she was not inside her headquarters in central Caracas when troops surrounded the building but that members of her staff were trapped inside.
“My office has been taken by public security forces, including national guards and policemen, between 400 and 500” troops, she said. “We still don’t know how many of our employees are inside. They’re not permitting us to go in, or anyone to go out.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, she denounced the creation of the new constitutional assembly — members of which include Maduro’s wife and son — as “the birth of a dictatorship.”
Speaking before the assembly’s action, she said: “If they remove me, I’ll keep fighting for human rights and for democracy. I can’t permit my country to become a dictatorship.”
She alleged that authorities were desperate to get their hands on dossiers containing information on dirty dealings by high-level officials, including sensitive details about millions of dollars in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
“All of our support to the Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz,” tweeted Julio Borges, head of the National Assembly, whose members were elected in 2015. “Together, in the defense of the constitution and democracy, we will overcome the dictatorship.”
Assembly delegates later swore in as Ortega’s replacement ombudsman Tarek William Saab, who was recently sanctioned by President Donald Trump’s administration for failing to protect protesters from abuses in his role as the nation’s top human-rights official.
Members of the constitutional assembly had pledged in their first meeting to move quickly against Maduro’s opponents.
“Don’t think we’re going to wait weeks, months or years,” former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said Friday after she was chosen to lead the assembly. “Tomorrow we start to act. The violent fascists, those who wage economic war on the people, those who wage psychological war, justice is coming for you.”
The constitutional assembly was seated despite strong criticism from the United States, other countries and the Venezuelan opposition, which fear it will be a tool for imposing dictatorship. Supporters say it will pacify a country rocked by violent protests.
Ortega, who was unsuccessful in blocking the new assembly from its power grab, opened a criminal investigation into election supervisors Wednesday after Smartmatic, the company that provides the country with its voting machines and software, said it couldn’t stand by results the company said had been inflated by at least 1 million of a purported nearly 8.1 million votes.
At least 10 people died on Election Day as the government fought off protests.
The opposition boycotted the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, saying the rules were rigged to further entrench Maduro’s “dictatorship.” Maduro and the National Electoral Council denied the election had been rigged.
At least 10 people died on Election Day as the government fought off protests.
The assembly’s installation is likely to intensify a political crisis that has generated four months of protests in which at least 120 people have died and hundreds more have been jailed.
Maduro also wants the assembly to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution, saying their constant conspiring to oust him shouldn’t be protected.
While members of congress say they will be removed only by force, the opposition is struggling to regain its footing in the face of the government’s strong-arm tactics and the re-emergence of old, internal divisions. Several opposition activists have been jailed in recent days, others are rumored to be seeking exile and one leader has broken ranks from the opposition alliance to say his party will field candidates in regional elections despite widespread distrust of the electoral system.
Venezuela was expected to hold regional voting to elect governors and mayors in December, while presidential elections would, in theory, be held in late 2018. It isn’t clear if that calendar will proceed under the constitutional assembly.
Only a few hundred demonstrators showed up for a Friday protest against the constitutional assembly, one of the smallest turnouts in months. Those who did turn out said fear of arrest — rights groups claim there are more than 600 “political prisoners” jailed during the protests — may be keeping people at home but urged Venezuelans to remain mobilized.
“We shouldn’t think the government is winning,” said Julio Borges, president of the opposition-controlled congress, making a plea for Maduro’s opponents to remain on the streets and capitalize on the government’s increasing international isolation. “The only thing it’s doing is destroying itself and committing suicide.”
More and more foreign governments have refused to recognize the constitutional assembly, further isolating Maduro’s government on the international stage.
On Saturday, the South American trade bloc Mercosur moved to suspend Venezuela for failing to follow democratic norms.
“Today’s unanimous decision for the suspension of Venezuela is a serious political sanction,” Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, Brazil’s foreign minister, said on his verified Twitter account. “A country that commits such barbarities against fundamental freedoms cannot be part of our association.”
Nunes said that to avoid worsening the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the suspension will not affect trade or migration policies.
Venezuela was previously suspended in December for failing to uphold commitments it made when it joined the group in 2012. The new decision will make it harder for the country to return to good standing since the new suspension can be lifted only when the bloc is satisfied that Venezuela has restored democratic order.
“Today in Venezuela there is no democracy,” Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said. “Essentially what Mercosur is saying is: Without democracy, no, you cannot be a part of Mercosur.”
Maduro responded by calling the move part of a dirty campaign led by the Trump administration to discredit Venezuela and get its hands on its vast oil reserves.
“They come walking down the middle of the street barking orders, treating rulers like their maids,” Maduro, told Argentina’s Radio Rebelde in an interview.
The constitutional assembly is made up of delegates from an array of pro-government sectors such as trade unionists, students and even representatives of Venezuelans with physical disabilities. But the agenda is expected to be set by bigger-name loyalists, including Maduro’s wife, son and several Cabinet ministers who resigned to join the body.
It will have sweeping powers to upend institutions and in theory could even remove Maduro, a fact held up by government supporters as a sign of its independence.
The Trump administration has threatened further action against assembly delegates. Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol and Saab are all under U.S. sanctions.
Loyal employees surround Venezuelan chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega (second from left) as security forces block her from entering her office Saturday in Caracas.