Maduro ally breaks rank with president over Venezuelan power grab
Attorney general calls supreme court move to take political power a ‘rupture’ of order
Venezuelan opposition activists scuffle with national guardsmen during a protest in front of the supreme court in Caracas on Friday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Screen grab from state-owned VTV television broadcast of attorney general Luisa Ortega on Friday. Ortega has unexpectedly broken ranks with President Nicolas Maduro. Photograph: VTV/HOHO/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuela’s powerful attorney general has rebuked the judiciary’s takeover of congress, breaking ranks with President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government as protests and international condemnation grew.
“It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order. It’s my obligation to express my great concern to the country,” Luisa Ortega, usually considered a key ally of the Socialists who have ruled Venezuela for the past 18 years, said on Friday.
While various prominent political figures have levelled criticism after leaving the government, it is extremely rare for a senior official to make such criticism. It may be interpreted by opponents that Maduro’s internal support is cracking.
From early morning, several dozen students marched in Caracas to the supreme court, which this week assumed the functions of the opposition-led National Assembly.
They were pushed back by soldiers with riot shields.
Small pockets of protesters also briefly blocked highways around Caracas, waving the Venezuelan flag and banners reading “No To Dictatorship”. Police moved them on.
“We have to demand our rights, in the streets, without fear,” said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro, who led a knot of demonstrators into a subway train.
Having already shot down most of the National Assembly’s measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro court this week said it was assuming the legislature’s functions because the legislature was in “contempt” of the law.
Outraged foes said the court action was a “coup” against an elected body.
Mr Maduro (54), a former bus driver and self-declared “son” of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected in 2013 amid widespread support for the ruling Socialist Party’s oil-fuelled welfare programs.
But his ratings have plummeted to just over 20 per cent as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines, and the highest inflation in the world.
Critics blame a failing socialist system while the government says its enemies are waging an “economic war”. The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.
The supreme court’s move also brought condemnations and concern from the United States, the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union, major Latin American nations and the UN’s top human rights official.
Russia, an ally, bucked the trend in a statement on Friday urging the world to leave Venezuela alone. “External forces should not add fuel to the fire to the conflict inside Venezuela,” it said. “We are confident in the principle of noninterference in internal affairs.”
Maduro accuses Washington of leading a push to topple him as part of a wider offensive against leftists in Latin America. Brazil, Argentina and Peru have all moved to the right recently.
However, new US president Donald Trump seems to have other priorities or has not yet fully formed policy on Venezuela.
OAS head Luis Almagro, whom the Venezuelan government views as a pawn of Washington, has pushed for Venezuela’s suspension from the 34-nation regional bloc and has demanded an emergency meeting after the latest developments.
Still, suspension appears unlikely, diplomats say, given Venezuela’s support from other leftist governments and small nations that have benefited from its oil largesse.
“It’s false there has been a coup d’etat in Venezuela,” Venezuela’s foreign ministry said, alleging a regional right-wing conspiracy. “On the contrary, institutions have adopted legal correctives to stop the deviant and coup-seeking actions of opposition parliamentarians openly in contempt of decisions by the republic’s maximum tribunal.”
Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity coalition, made up of about two dozen parties and groups, declared itself in “permanent session” and promised rolling street protests. The coalition, however, is hobbled by disunity: leaders called at least four separate overlapping news conferences on Friday.
Opposition supporters are also acutely aware that street tactics have failed on numerous occasions. Vast rallies in 2002 helped to briefly topple Chavez, but he was back some 36 hours later after supporters poured onto the street and military factions came to his aid.
In 2014, hardline opposition activists led months of protests, which turned violent and led to 43 deaths. Their leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was jailed, and Mr Maduro consolidated power.
Hundreds of thousands marched last year, but authorities still thwarted the opposition’s push for a referendum to recall Mr Maduro, and also postponed local elections.
The opposition hopes the military, whose top ranks still pledge absolute loyalty to Mr Maduro, though there is believed to be dissent lower down, may nudge him into bringing forward a presidential election slated for the end of 2018. As yet there is no public sign of that happening.
“Given that the government controls all the state’s institutions, including the armed forces, the security apparatus is likely to strongly repress protesters, with opposition leaders facing higher detention risks,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuelan analyst with the IHS Markit consultancy.
The supreme court’s contempt charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from the southern Amazonas state. Even though they no longer sit in Congress, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case legally.