CARACAS, Venezuela—When President Nicolás Maduro promised to go ahead with his plan to elect a new institutional body to usurp Venezuela’s top legislative body, the national assembly, he said that one of his first priorities would be to fire the nation’s chief prosecutor, and a top critic of his, Luisa Ortega.
On July 30, in a watershed and highly controversial moment, Venezuelans chose the members of that new institution, called the constitutional assembly.
Several days later, despite efforts by opposition politicians to stall its implementation, the constitutional assembly was convened.
And during its first day of work, Maduro made good on his promise to rid Venezuela of Luisa Ortega.
The constitutional assembly also made sure to prevent her from running for public office again or leaving the country, even going so far as to freeze her assets.
The removal of Ortega, once an ally of Hugo Chavez and therefore part of the same leftist movement that Maduro inherited when he became president, is a sign of what is to come for the country’s opposition.
Taking Ortega’s place will be Tarek William Saab, an ardent Maduro supporter and a man recently sanctioned by the United States.
The situation signals a constitutional crisis, said Jennifer McCoy, an expert in Venezuelan politics at Georgia State University and co-author of International Mediation in Venezuela.
“We’re now seeing dueling public institutions in Venezuela,” said McCoy. “She’s claiming she’s not disposed, but the constitutional assembly says it has the power to do so.”
The motivation for removing Ortega was relatively straightforward, said McCoy, but it is clearly an ominous sign for those who speak out against the government.
“She was a loyal government official who then defected and began to criticize the government’s actions and the supreme court’s actions as unconstitutional, and she was investigating human-rights abuses by the security forces,” said McCoy. “Their motivations were to avoid her investigations and her criticism.
The signs of vengeance began even before the election.
Earlier, Socialist Party Deputy Diosdado Cabello said the new body would establish a “truth commission” to prosecute political opponents, and on Saturday, former Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and the newly elected leader of the constitutional assembly reiterated the proposal.
Although Maduro was elected president in 2013, since then his approval ratings have plummeted, with the opposition winning a majority in the country’s top legislative body, the national assembly, for the first time in 16 years.
His ratings are now hovering around 20 percent and, with his support faltering, McCoy said she believes that his administration has simply decided to turn against the democratic process to ensure it stays in power.
The next major clash in the crisis, she says, will be between the constitutional assembly and the legislature.