Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega (C), one of President Nicolas Maduro’s most vocal critics, is seen on a motorbike during a flash visit to the Public Prosecutor’s office in Caracas on August 5, 2017 as national guard units were posted at the entries and exits to the building. Venezuela’s dissident attorney general Ortega said Saturday her offices were “under siege” by troops, as a new loyalist assembly was about to start work to bolster the policies of President Nicolas Maduro and counter his foes. Ronaldo SCHEMIDT / AFP
Venezuela’s contested new assembly fired the country’s dissident attorney general, Luisa Ortega, on Saturday and ordered her to go on trial in a move sure to further inflame international criticism of the leftist government.
The body, which made the decisions its first order of business since its widely condemned election a week ago, also said it planned to operate as Venezuela’s supreme power for up to two years.
Just before the assembly’s first working session in the ornate Legislative Palace in Caracas, dozens of troops posted outside the prosecutors’ offices prevented Ortega from entering.
“You didn’t see how they manhandled me, how they attacked me with shields,” Ortega told reporters outside after being rebuffed. Ortega has been a thorn in President Nicolas Maduro’s side for months, after she broke ranks with him over the legality of the Constituent Assembly.
Her sacking was widely expected, but its swiftness — and the move to put her on trial for alleged “irregularities” while in office — showed the assembly was keen on taking aggressive action right out of the gate.
Citing the “rupture of the democratic order,” Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil unanimously decided to suspend Venezuela from Mercosur, a South American trading bloc,
Foreign ministers from the four founding members of the bloc issued a statement in Sao Paulo calling for “the immediate start of a process of political transition and restoration of the democratic order.”
Before Ortega’s sacking, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, tweeted: “An aggression against her (Ortega) is an aggression against Venezuelan democracy.”
On Friday, the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered Venezuela to protect Ortega, saying her life was at risk after she launched an investigation into the legality of the Constituent Assembly.
US National Security Advisor HR McMaster in an interview that aired Saturday on US cable news channel MSNB accused Maduro of leading an “authoritarian dictatorship” that had staged a “coup” against democracy.
But he ruled out foreign military intervention in the oil-rich nation, and said Washington did not want to give Maduro a pretext for blaming Washington for his mounting woes.
“It’s important for us to place responsibility for this catastrophe on Maduro’s shoulders. He is the one who has caused it, and he’s the one who’s perpetuating it,” McMaster said.
The United States, the European Union and major Latin American nations including Mexico, Argentina and Chile have all rejected the assembly.
The body’s legitimacy was struck a hard blow when a British-based firm that supplied the voting technology, Smartmatic, said this week the turnout figure was “tampered with” and greatly exaggerated.
Subsequent US sanctions directly targeted Maduro. More were threatened against the assembly’s 545 members. Maduro has responded by lashing out at US “imperialism” and calling the heads of other Latin American states vassals to Washington.
Maduro’s former foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez, who now heads the Constituent Assembly, had vowed to go after those seen to be behind months of anti-government protests.
“The international community should not make a mistake over Venezuela. The message is clear, very clear: we Venezuelans will resolve our conflict, our crisis without any form of foreign interference,” she said.
Maduro himself said on Friday that “if we had an attorney general here that acted… all these violent protesters would already be in jail.”
The principal task of the Constituent Assembly is to rewrite the constitution. But while working on that, it enjoys supreme powers over all other branches of government.
Initial suggestions were that it would need only six months to complete its mission. But its decision on Saturday that it would stay in place for up to two years showed it would be in charge for some time to come.
Its 545 members are all Maduro allies, and their number includes the president’s wife and son. The opposition has vowed to maintain street protests against the assembly, but they had grown more muted in the past few days as despondency set in.
While Ortega’s sacking was contentious for them, she did not enjoy wide public support because of her previous loyalty to the government. Maduro himself enjoys no more than 20 percent public support, according to surveys by the Datanalisis polling firm.
At home, he relies on backing from the military and judicial and electoral authorities.
Abroad, Russia — which has loaned billions of dollars to Venezuela — is his main ally against a tide of 40 countries that have criticized the new assembly as a blow to democracy.
Meanwhile, food, essentials and medicine are scarce, the decline of the currency is accelerating, inflation is in triple digits, reserves to pay sovereign debt are dwindling, and thousands of Venezuelans are leaving to seek survival in neighboring countries.