Venezuela is set to become Latin America’s largest dictatorship, according to the country’s dissident attorney general.
In a written statement given in August 2017 to local media, Luisa Ortega Díaz, denounced the “rupture of a constitutional thread” in Venezuela, and the “installation of a dictatorship sponsored from the fraudulent and unconstitutional [National] Constituent Assembly.”
On August 24, Ortega attended a summit in Brazil of prosecutors and attorneys from the regional economic group, Mercosur. The event will let her “show the world the proofs that incriminate [President] Nicolás Maduro and those around him on serious charges of corruption,” she said.
Ortega, 59, said she had evidence that implicates the Venezuelan president and his inner circle in a number of corruption cases, including the Odebrecht corruption scandal.
The Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, along with alleged co-conspirators, stands accused by the U.S. of having “paid approximately $788 million in bribes in association with more than 100 projects in twelve countries,” including $100 million to Venezuela. The company denies the charges.
Maduro and other senior government leaders have denied the charges and claim that it’s Ortega who’s involved in an unspecified corruption scheme.
On August 23, the Venezuelan president said he was seeking an international arrest warrant for Ortega for serious crimes, including bribery, high-level corruption and extortion, according to Tarek William Saab, new attorney general, named by National Constituent Assembly.
The former attorney general lasted 9 years and a half in office, enough time to degrade what in the Constitution appears as the symbol of justice, and turn it into a private company (…) to be offended in the name of justice”, said Saab during a press conference in Caracas, where he showed evidence of serious crimes committed by Ortega.
From chavista hero to corrupt officer
Despite being requested by justice, Ortega secretly fled to Aruba by speedboat on August 17, claiming her life was at risk in Venezuela. She then boarded a private jet to Colombia, where she was offered asylum by President Juan Manuel Santos.
The chief prosecutor was joined by her husband, Germán Ferrer, a lawmaker in Venezuela’s National Assembly, who is also sought by Maduro’s government on charges of corruption and extortion. Ferrer denies both charges.
However, after a breaking and entering conducted by police on Ortega’s home, officials found out luxury items, including expensive Andy Warhol and Jacobo Borges paintings.
Fighting the president
Ortega’s spectacular fall from grace and subsequent flight to safety serve as a stark reminder of the precariousness of the rule of law in Venezuela.
A former staunch government supporter turned outspoken critic, Ortega broke ranks with Maduro’s government in March 2017 after claiming that a Supreme Court ruling stripping the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers was unlawful.
During the ensuing wave of anti-government protests, the attorney general became increasingly vocal in her criticism of Maduro and his government.
After the president decreed a plan to convene a constituent assembly capable of rewriting Venezuela’s constitution, Ortega filed a legal challenge, which was rejected by the pro-government Supreme Court.
In late June, the Supreme Court barred her from leaving the country and froze all of her assets. Some of her duties were transferred to Venezuela’s ombudsman, Tarek Saab, a staunch Maduro loyalist.
On August 5, Ortega was sacked by Venezuela’s day-old constituent assembly on charges of “immoral acts.”
She denies both Maduro’s and the ANC’s charges, saying they are politically motivated.
A controversial assembly
On July 30, and for the second time in as many decades, millions of Venezuelans went to the polls to elect a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) capable of rewriting the country’s constitution. If critics claimed the first process was a tragedy, they greeted the second iteration as a farce: the opposition refused to field candidates, claiming the process was unconstitutional; reports of voting irregularities were commonplace, and the CEO of the company that provided the voting systems claimed that the turnout numbers provided by the government were inflated by at least one million people.
On August 4, the ANC’s 545 pro-government members – including Maduro’s wife and son – took their places in the Federal Legislative Palace amidst a flurry of national and international condemnation, including U.S. sanctions on Maduro.
The Venezuelan president promised the ANC would bring about peace and prosperity to Venezuela, where over 120 people have died after several months of mass anti-government protests.
But critics fear that he is using the assembly to quash dissent and legitimise his government’s increasingly authoritarian policies.
A UN human rights team found “widespread and systematic use of excessive force and arbitrary detentions against demonstrators in Venezuela,” and claims that at least 73 protesters were killed by Venezuelan security forces or pro-government groups known as “colectivos.”
A country of chaos
Speaking from Colombia last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said: “President Trump has made it very clear that we will not stand by while Venezuela collapses into a dictatorship.”
He added: “A failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemisphere and the people of the United States of America.”
While Pence’s statement dialed down President Trump’s threat of military intervention, South American leaders were unanimous in their rejection of military force as a means for political change.
In a press conference with Mr Pence, left-leaning Chilean President Michelle Bachelet stated: “Chile will not support military interventions [in Venezuela], nor coup d’état.”
But Bachelet did express “high concern for the levels of violence and humanitarian crises experienced by Venezuela,” which she said had caused a “tremendous wave of migration to neighboring countries.”
In 2016, according to the Migration Policy Institute, “some 200,000 Venezuelans left the country, double the average rate per year between 1999 and early 2015.”
Since 2014, Venezuela’s economy has cratered due to a precipitous fall in the price of crude oil – the country’s main source of revenue – and years of economic mismanagement. Inflation hit 800 percent in December 2016 and is expected to increase even further this year.
One leading opposition national newspaper said today: “The government’s policies have pushed up all the indicators that should have gone down and pushed down all the indicators that should have gone up.”
Basic household goods such as food and medicine are dangerously scarce. According to a prestigious national survey that tracks living standards, 82 percent of Venezuelan households fell under the poverty line in 2016, with 51.5 percent being in extreme poverty. This represents an increase of 70 percent from 2014, when total household poverty stood at 48 percent.
The same survey details that 73 percent of Venezuelans lost an average 8.7 kilograms in 2016; almost 10 million people subsist on 2 meals or less a day.
Whereas the country’s economic woes are relatively recent, peace has eluded Venezuela for over a decade. Ever since the late Hugo Chávez took office, the country has witnessed yearly rises in violence. In 2005, the chavista government stopped publishing official violence statistics. A leading national NGO estimates that Venezuela witnessed 28,479 violent deaths in 2016. This makes it the second most violent peacetime country in the world, after El Salvador.
President Maduro has repeatedly pinned the escalating violence on domestic “fascist aggressions,” and blames Western democracies – particularly the U.S. – for waging “economic warfare” on Venezuela, but has failed to produce serious evidence to corroborate his claims.
What is clear is that Venezuela is approaching a dangerous impasse – as the margin for peaceful democratic change diminishes, the possibility for violent insurrection or foreign intervention increases. Three unsuccessful small-scale rebellions have occurred in the last two months.
So far, most Venezuelans still eschew violence as a means for political change. But as the country’s coffers shrink and its politics become increasingly authoritarian, peace and prosperity have never seemed so distant.
The National Constituent Assembly (ANC, in Spanish) is an elected temporary parliament that has the power to modify or rewrite the country’s constitution. It wields supreme constitutional power and may override decisions made by other state institutions (or even dissolve them altogether), such as the opposition-controlled National Assembly – Venezuela’s Congress.
The National Assembly is Venezuela’s unicameral legislative body, and was created by Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution.