Few question whether Venezuela’s former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz is a true chavista. As Venezuela’s top law enforcement officer for nearly a decade, she followed the government line to the letter, including in the prosecution of demonstrators arrested in a wave of protests against President Nicolás Maduro in 2014.
That is, until recently. In the space of only a few months, Ortega has become one of Maduro’s most powerful critics, and an unlikely hero to Venezuela’s opposition. That shift has come at a great personal cost. Harassed by the government and stripped of her position, Ortega was forced to flee the country by speedboat on Aug. 17. After stopping in Colombia, she arrived Tuesday in Brazil; many speculate she will eventually seek asylum in the United States. Maduro, meanwhile, has called on Interpol for her arrest.
To understand this scene, you have to go back to late March, when two Supreme Court decisions meant to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its remaining powers sent thousands into the streets in protest.
The backlash against those decisions surprised the Maduro administration, but the real shock came when Ortega publicly declared that the Supreme Court rulings had broken the constitutional order. This wasn’t just unexpected: It changed the rules of the game in Venezuela.
Many believe the days of sustained protests that followed would not have persisted if not for Ortega’s decision to apply pressure on the regime. Branded a “traitor” and “mentally unbalanced” by mainstream chavistas, she unnerved the Maduro regime, which led officials to try repeatedly to undermine her power. One of the very first rulings of the National Constituent Assembly, the all-powerful makeshift legislative body created by Maduro this month, was to replace Ortega with Tarek William Saab, a former state governor and ombudsman – and hardline Maduro loyalist.
Some in the opposition remain ambivalent about having Ortega on their side. During her tenure, she never hesitated to press charges against those whom former President Hugo Chávez, and later Maduro, had singled out. Perhaps the most infamous instance involved Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, who was jailed for four years after one of her own rulings drew Chávez’s ire.
But Ortega is now a valuable asset for the Democratic Unity Table, Venezuela’s main opposition coalition. Dissidence within chavismo isn’t new, but it has never really been a threat to the stability of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). What makes Ortega’s break from the government different is the power she wielded when she decided to defect. Still the Attorney General and considered a reliable government supporter, Ortega had everything to lose when she spoke out against Maduro’s anti-democratic maneuvering.
Her decision shows just how widespread discontent within chavismo has become. Ortega is the most prominent former regime supporter to break from Maduro, but she is not the only one. A loose group labeled “critical chavistas” that have taken similar steps include former ministers such as Ana Elisa Osorio and Héctor Navarro, former ombudswoman Gabriela Ramírez, journalist Vanessa Davis, and military commander Cliver Alcalá.
More recently, several deputies of the National Assembly broke away from the PSUV to form an independent “socialist bloc.” One of them, Germán Ferrer, is Ortega’s husband and has also fled Venezuela. There is also the former Minister of Interior Major General Miguel Rodríguez Torres, who heads the dissident party Desafío Para Todos.
For many of these former supporters, the creation of the National Constituent Assembly was a step too far. Pushed by Maduro and the rest of high-ranking mainstream chavistas, the excuse of making a new constitution, which the body will oversee, has allowed them to close ranks and overrule the parliament and the Public Ministry, the country’s equivalent of the Department of Justice. In fact, the National Constituent Assembly supersedes all government institutions.
The new body has given hardline government supporters a way to consolidate their power, but the cost of proceeding with what many regard a betrayal of Chávez’s 1999 Constitution remains to be seen.
Ortega’s future is also uncertain. After being removed from office on Aug. 5 but before fleeing the country, Ortega said she would try to continue inquiries into corruption that she had begun as attorney general. Those included looking at potential links between Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and Venezuelan officials.
Those investigations now look unlikely to bear fruit. When Ortega began to criticize Maduro’s overreach she was seen by many as a trailblazer; following her flight from Venezuela last week, hers may also be a cautionary tale.
González Vargas is a university professor in Maracay, Venezuela