Venezuela’s top prosecutor becomes Maduro’s most-feared opponent


Luisa Ortega Díaz
Luisa Ortega Díaz

Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz has become one of the most outspoken critics of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, a rare and inconvenient voice of dissent raging from within the ranks of the government.

Maduro is used to dismissing political opponents as right-wing coup plotters, but it’s difficult to tag the same label on Ortega, an admirer of late president Hugo Chavez. She has vowed to protect his 1999 constitution “with her life” amid the violent turmoil that has engulfed the Latin American nation.

In March, Ortega shocked both Maduro’s government and the political opposition by turning a routine speech into a condemnation of the leftist president’s eventually unsuccessful bid to sideline parliament. She has since grabbed headlines with a series of blistering remarks against the executive branch.

Ortega is once again in the spotlight this week. On Monday she told Venezuelans in a video that she would “defend the republic” against Maduro’s authoritarian drive. On Tuesday she is appearing before the Supreme Court to face allegations of unspecified irregularities in her role as the country’s top law enforcement official.

Maduro has faced down street protesters, an emboldened opposition-controlled legislature, and disapproving regional leaders, but Ortega represents the biggest threat to his grip on power: a potential fracture within his own “Chavista” camp.

A ‘break’

Ortega, 59, is a lawyer by training who joined the justice ministry in 2002. She became a close legal advisor to Chavez and stood in the front row of his state funeral in 2013. The wife of a ruling party lawmaker, she was named Venezuela’s top prosecutor in 2014 for a term that ends in 2021.

However, her relation with the Socialist government that has ruled the country since 1999 suddenly soured on March 31. During an annual speech broadcast on live television she declared that two decisions by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court taking over Parliament’s powers amounted to a “break in the constitutional order”.

According to Hugo Perez Hernaiz, a Venezuelan political analyst, the announcement was a bombshell that began with smaller, more subtle messages and decisions. “In hindsight you can see she was criticising the government, but it was always framed in the language of Chavismo, so it wasn’t easy to identify,” the scholar told FRANCE 24.

Since then, Ortega has ratcheted up her combative tone. On May 3, as the death toll from weeks of street protests surged past 30, she told the Wall Street Journal: “We can’t demand legal and peaceful behaviour from citizens if the state takes decisions that don’t accord with the law.”

Two weeks later she penned a letter to the government clearly stating her opposition to Maduro’s bid to hold elections for a new constituent assembly charged with rewriting the constitution. Many have denounced the move as a rigged game that will allow Maduro to retain his grip on power. Ortega wrote in her letter that the July 30 election would do nothing to resolve the country’s economic and political crisis.

Then on June 28 she publicly denounced the government’s bloody crackdown on protesters as “state-backed terrorism”. More than 80 people – including opponents and supporters of the government – have died in protests, riots and looting incidents across the country in the past three months.

Maduro strikes back

While the Maduro administration has struggled to retort to its one-time ally, it has not taken Ortega’s criticism sitting down.

Ruling party lawmaker Pedro Carrero filed charges against the top official, alleging “serious errors in carrying-out her functions” and also that she was suffering from “insanity” and should be relieved from her duties.

Last week Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami denounced Ortega, accusing her of “leading or being a member” of groups trying to overthrow the government.
Maduro has so far kept relatively quiet about the dissident Ortega, but the political analyst Perez Hernaiz said it was “only a question of time” before the president publicly reprimands her.

“There is a certain protocol for accusing so-called enemies of the government. It starts with one official, or a general, then another. This is the typical operating mode of the government and I am completely sure Maduro will say something soon,” he said.

The Supreme Court last week ordered Ortega’s assets to be frozen and banned her from leaving the country. Meanwhile, she has asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect her and civil servants working under her.

Domino effect?

While critics of the Venezuelan government have hailed Ortega’s stand, the political opposition has also struggled to figure out what to do with an avowed disciple of the late Chavez – who hand-picked Maduro as his successor.

Among a diverse opposition there are some who categorically refuse any rapprochement with Chavistas, even reformed ones. There are even conspiracy theorists who believe Ortega is part of a complex plot by Maduro to continue extending Socialist rule in the oil-rich country.

According to Perez Hernaiz, political pragmatism has nevertheless convinced a majority in the opposition to embrace Ortega with open arms, and jointly denounce what they call a sham election on July 30.

However, the analyst says Ortega’s ability to change the balance of power in Venezuela depends less on her ability to integrate the opposition, and more on inspiring others like her within government.

“It’s hard for me to believe she is acting completely alone, she would be taking a huge risk. It will be interesting to see if she will not start some kind of domino effect, if other officials will come forward before the election,” he said.