Washington, DC—On July 5, a group of armed supporters of the Venezuelan government attacked opposition lawmakers and members of the media at the National Assembly, with video evidence suggesting that the group entered with the consent of members of the Venezuelan National Guard. The attack followed an event organized in the Legislative Palace by the Maduro administration without the prior consent of the National Assembly. It is never acceptable for government officials or security forces to encourage citizen violence. Allowing such violence to be wielded against a branch of government is a violation of the separation of powers, and of the democratic sovereignty of the people. WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America) strongly condemns the attack.
This latest violent incident comes just as the government wages a parallel assault on one of Venezuela’s last remaining independent institutions: the Attorney General’s Office. On July 4, Venezuela’s highest court heard a petition to remove Attorney General Luisa Ortega from office based on charges that she committed “grave errors” in her role as the country’s top prosecutor by denouncing the unconstitutional nature of the Maduro government’s proposed Constituent Assembly, and the illegal naming of 17 judges in December 2015. These allegations of misconduct by Ortega are baseless, and the petition and the court’s treatment of it as a criminal rather than administrative case are politically motivated. This is a clear effort to remove the Attorney General from office in response to her public criticisms of the government of President Nicolas Maduro, and the actions she has taken against its authoritarian measures.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ) has said it will take several days to review the merits of the case against Ortega, but her ouster appears imminent. On July 3, the court annulled the National Assembly’s designation of a deputy attorney general, appointing instead a government loyalist, Katherine Harrington, who is poised to replace Ortega in the event of her removal from office.
WOLA condemns the Maduro government’s move to dislodge Ortega as a blatant effort to remove an independent official. We share the concerns of attorney generals from 10 Latin American nations (as well as Spain and Portugal) that have expressed alarm over the recent assault on Ortega, and reject any efforts to limit the autonomy and independence of her office. Under Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, the autonomy of the Attorney General’s Office is designed precisely to serve as a check on the rest of the government.
These moves come in the context of the Maduro government’s anti-democratic and unconstitutional push for a Constituent Assembly. As we have noted before, this effort is unconstitutional insofar as it usurps the people’s exclusive right to call a Constituent Assembly through a referendum or another mechanism. Furthermore, the Constituent Assembly’s “powers of origin” will allow it to override all other branches of government. Government officials have already suggested the Constituent Assembly will disband the opposition National Assembly. It is clear that the Maduro government is using the Constituent Assembly to change the rules of the game because it knows it cannot win a fair election.
WOLA urges the Maduro government to rectify its undemocratic course and ensure the rule of law. We also urge countries in the region to communicate and work together to facilitate this rectification.