A new assembly loyal to President Nicolas Maduro fired Venezuela’s attorney general, a vociferous critic, in its first working session today, bolstering criticism it is acting to create a “dictatorship.” The body, the Constituent Assembly, made the sacking its first order of business since a widely condemned election a week ago. It also said the ousted chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega, will face trial for “irregularities” while in office.
“This is not a personal, political lynching, just carrying out the law,” said one of the assembly’s most prominent members, Diosdado Cabello.
Earlier, dozens of soldiers had roughly barred Ortega, 59, from entering her offices, prompting her to say “this is a dictatorship.” She left as a passenger on a motorbike before she could be arrested and later said she did not recognise her dismissal.
Ortega was a thorn in President Nicolas Maduro’s side for months, after breaking ranks with him over the legality of the Constituent Assembly.
Her sacking was widely expected, but its swiftness — and the fact it was a unanimous vote — showed the assembly was keen on taking aggressive, pro-government actions right out of the gate.
Mexico and Peru immediately condemned Ortega’s dismissal.
Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil also took action over the new assembly, declaring Venezuela was indefinitely suspended from the South American trading bloc Mercosur for its “rupture of the democratic order.”
Maduro responded in an interview with an Argentine radio station that “Venezuela will not be taken out of Mercosur — never!”
He accused his Argentine counterpart, Mauricio Macri, of trying to impose a “blockade” on Venezuela.
He also railed against US President Donald Trump’s “imperialist” administration, which slapped sanctions on him over the new assembly.
America, he charged, wanted to get its hands on Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world.
But in Washington, Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, ruled out foreign military intervention, and said Washington did not want to give Maduro a pretext for blaming Washington for his mounting woes.
The country’s economic and political crisis, he said, is “on Maduro’s shoulders — he is the one who has caused it, and he’s the one who’s perpetuating it.”
Venezuela, McMaster told US television network MSNBC, is under an “authoritarian dictatorship” that has staged a “coup” against democracy.
The United States, the European Union and major Latin American nations including Mexico, Argentina and Chile have all rejected the Constituent Assembly.
The body’s legitimacy was struck a hard blow this week when a British-based firm that supplied the voting technology, Smartmatic, said the turnout figure was “tampered with” and greatly exaggerated.
The principal task of the Constituent Assembly is to rewrite the constitution, something Maduro promised will resolve Venezuela conflict.
“We are going to win back peace,” the president said.
While working on its mission, the assembly holds supreme powers over all other branches of government.
Initial suggestions were that it would need only six months to complete its mission.
But it announced today that it would stay in place for up to two years — beyond the end of Maduro’s term, due to end in 2019.
Its 545 members, all Maduro allies, include the president’s wife and son. It is led by Maduro’s fiercely loyal former foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez.
The opposition has vowed to maintain street protests against the assembly.
Four months of demonstrations violently matched by security forces have left at least 125 people dead.
But the rallies grew more muted this week as the assembly took its seats and vowed to go after those inciting street action.
Maduro enjoys no more than 20 per cent public support, according to surveys by the Datanalisis polling firm.
Ordinary Venezuelans are struggling, with food, essentials and medicine are scarce, the currency rapidly depreciating, and inflation soaring. Thousands have sought shelter in neighboring countries, particularly Colombia and Brazil.
Maduro relies on backing from the military and judicial and electoral authorities to maintain authority at home.
Abroad, Russia — which has loaned billions of dollars to Venezuela — is his main ally, against a tide of 40 countries that have criticised the new assembly.