Venezuela veers closer to dictatorship, with firing of dissident state prosecutor

  • 06/08/2017
Luisa Ortega.
Luisa Ortega. Photo credit: Getty

Venezuela's new pro-government constituent assembly has removed dissident state prosecutor Luisa Ortega from her job, in what critics call a blatant affront to democracy.

Since the opposition started a round of protests in April, Ms Ortega has become President Nicolas Maduro's main challenger from within the ruling socialist movement, accusing him of human rights abuses.

The new constituent assembly, which Ms Ortega said was fraudulently elected last weekend, unanimously decided to remove her in its first session on Saturday.

Earlier in the day, security forces had taken up position in front of her office, blocking Ms Ortega from entering the building. She left on a motorbike amid the chaos.

The constituent assembly replaced Ms Ortega with human rights ombudsman Tarek Saab, a government ally whom the opposition says has turned a blind eye to state abuses.

The new legislative body has no checks on its powers, and critics say the decision to remove Ms Ortega is an ominous sign of a swerve by Mr Maduro into full-blown dictatorship.

"The constituent assembly is solving Mr Maduro's political problems, handing out quotas, and lynching institutions," said opposition lawmaker Jose Manuel Olivares after news of Ms Ortega's removal.

The constituent assembly could also re-write the constitution, re-arrange state institutions and allow Mr Maduro to rule by decree. Assembly members had said they would fire Ms Ortega the first chance they got.

The assembly was installed despite opposition street protests. More than 120 people have died in four months of sustained marches against Mr Maduro. Critics say his policies have pushed Venezuela into an economic crisis marked by triple digit inflation and severe shortages of food and medicine.

Mr Maduro says the US "empire" is waging economic war on Venezuela and refuses to allow humanitarian aid to enter the country. He says the new assembly is the only way to unify Venezuela into a peaceful, prosperous socialist state.

Meanwhile, the South American trade bloc Mercosur suspended Venezuela indefinitely on Saturday, adding to international pressure on Mr Maduro to restore democracy.

The foreign ministers of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil announced the decision in Sao Paulo, urging Mr Maduro to release prisoners and immediately start a political transition.

"We are saying: Stop with this! Enough with the deaths, enough with the repression. It is not possible to inflict such torture on the people," Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes said after the meeting.

Mercosur has no provision for expulsion. It had suspended Venezuela temporarily in December for not complying with the bloc's regulations, and toughened its stance following the controversial election of the constituent assembly on Sunday and the arrest of several opposition leaders.