Venezuela Attorney General Luisa Ortega Criticizes Regime She Serves

Publicado en The Wall Street Journal

Por: By Anatoly Kurmanaev and Kejal Vyas

CARACAS—Venezuela’s top prosecutor, already under pressure for criticizing the authoritarian government she serves, on Wednesday condemned state violence against protesters, decried the stratospheric inflation racking her country, and praised the constitution President Nicolás Maduro wants to eliminate.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega’s comments to The Wall Street Journal, in a rare interview, appeared to confirm her break with the hard-line leftist regime, which expects unquestioned loyalty as it wrestles with a growing surge of public unrest.

Mr. Maduro has intensified the government’s crackdown on protests and civil unrest that have cost at least 31 lives in recent weeks. On Wednesday shocking videos went viral on social media showing National Guard using armored riot-control vehicles to run over protesters in Caracas. The incident was confirmed by the mayor of the Caracas district of Chacao.

With the oil-rich nation entrenched in a punishing economic crisis and a bitter power struggle between the government and the opposition, Ms. Ortega’s carefully couched criticisms of Mr. Maduro’s slide into authoritarianism have turned her into an unlikely face of dissent after having served for a decade as a pillar of the Socialist government.

“It’s time to come to terms with ourselves,” the 59-year-old lawyer said at her office in the capital. “It’s time to hold talks and to negotiate. It means one has to yield on decisions for the good of the country.”

Talk like that is unusual from a top-ranking Venezuelan official, particularly one like Ms. Ortega, who has long drawn the ire of rights groups for using what they considered kangaroo courts to lock away political foes and for allegedly helping the government bury charges of rampant corruption.

The government appears to be trying to shunt her aside in the face of her displays of independence. Her speeches no longer get live coverage from state TV, she has lost her bodyguards and the Maduro government has ramped up the use of military tribunals to circumvent the public prosecutor’s office.

Ms. Ortega has denounced the use of armed civilian groups that do the government’s bidding. She has urged that the right of protest be respected and due process guaranteed, complaining of hundreds of arbitrary detentions by National Guard and intelligence police. Her comments undercut the government’s argument that the street violence embroiling the nation stems exclusively from right-wing agitators.

“We can’t demand peaceful and legal behavior from citizens if the state takes decisions that don’t accord with the law,” said Ms. Ortega.

Born into a rural family of eight, Ms. Ortega said she was captivated by the message of social inclusion propagated Mr. Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez, while she worked as a provincial criminal lawyer in the 1990s. She joined Mr. Chávez’s government as a legal adviser when he won the presidency and redrafted the constitution in 1999 and has since married a ruling party lawmaker.

A blue, pocket-size copy of the constitution adorns her otherwise bare desk, and her government office is devoid of images of Mr. Maduro. “This constitution is unbeatable,” Ms. Ortega said. “This is Chávez’s constitution.”

That same constitution is what Mr. Maduro now says needs redoing. Rights groups have slammed that initiative as the unpopular leader’s last-ditch effort to avoid elections that polls show his party would easily lose.

The push to recast the constitution has also drawn stinging criticism from the U.S., where senators on Wednesday presented a bill urging President Donald Trump to take tougher actions to address Venezuela’s meltdown, including slapping sanctions on Venezuelan officials responsible for abuses and corruption.

Many of Ms. Ortega’s critics say she is looking to clean up her image in case of a change of government in Caracas. “I don’t trust her. She can’t just change her mask that easily,” said street protester Marta Corrales at a recent rally.

Others say her intentions are more sincere and come in response to her loss of powers as Mr. Maduro tries to consolidate control across the government. “What the prosecutor is doing seems to be genuine,” said Nizar El Fakih, a lawyer who has defended a host of high-profile Venezuelan political prisoners. In a polarized nation, he added, “she’s trying to carve out a third way, looking for a way to separate herself from Maduro.”

Proiuris, a legal watchdog group led by Mr. El Fakih, says it has documented 13 cases over the last six months of civilians being tried in military tribunals, cutting out prosecutors from the ministry Ms. Ortega runs. The group has also logged 50 cases in which judges have denied bail to defendants even after prosecutors recommended their release.

“This is one of the issues that the state has to view with a lot of concern,” the attorney general said in the interview, when asked about Mr. Maduro government’s growing use of military courts.

Ms. Ortega first made her discontent apparent in a surprise announcement on March 31. In an otherwise humdrum annual address, Ms. Ortega stopped to denounce a break in constitutional order after Mr. Maduro sought to transfer powers from the oppositioncontrolled legislature to his allies in the Supreme Court.

State TV promptly cut off transmission of her speech, which drew a standing ovation from those attending.

At other times, her criticism has been more subtle, and even cryptic. In a recent post on Twitter, she recommended her 411,000 followers to read an essay by 20th-century Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio. Titled “Democracy and Secret,” it discusses how authoritarianism and oligarchic powers often mask themselves behind democratic principles.

“It’s not easy to decipher what game she’s playing, what she’s calculating,” said Andrés Bello Catholic University law professor Antonio Canova. “But what is clear is that she’s now turned into a problem for the government.”


Write to Anatoly Kurmanaev at and Kejal Vyas at




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