Luisa Ortega Díaz served as Venezuela’s Attorney General (AG) from 2007 to 2017 during the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Ortega rose to international prominence in 2017 after publicly critiquing a Supreme Court ruling that sought to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers. Ortega also challenged Maduro’s plans to establish the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), elected on July 30, 2017.
The newly established ANC removed Ortega from office on August 5, 2017. Her assets were frozen, and she was barred from leaving the country. Her husband, Germán Ferrer, was a Chavista lawmaker in the National Assembly from 2006 to 2017. In August 2017, he broke from the pro-government bloc of legislators, denouncing the creation of the ANC. Diosdado Cabello, a senior PSUV figure, filed corruption charges against Ferrer. Ortega and Ferrer fled to Colombia, and now reside in Spain.
In November 2017, Ortega filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Maduro and other high-ranking officials of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture. In this interview, Ortega discusses her time in office and outlines her stance on what is required to restore democracy in Venezuela. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
John Brown: What attracted you to work as AG during the presidency of Hugo Chávez?
Luisa Ortega Díaz: To be clear, I was never a politician, I was never in the PSUV or the MVR. To be AG of Venezuela, one of the requirements in the Constitution is that you do not have a party affiliation.
JB: What did Chavismo represent to you?
LOD: At the end of the 20th century, we had a political system where the parties were completely delegitimized. Chavismo emerged at a moment of social, political, and economic crisis. The Bolivarian proposal, the proposal of Chávez, represented a path to liberation from this scenario. A lot of people, including me, identified with Chávez’s ideas which aimed to deliver social inclusion, and which were organized into the 1999 Constitution.
JB: There were accusations that Chávez centralized power in the office of the president. Were there problems trying to lead a process of social reform with such centralized authority?
LOD: Of course. The problem began with Chávez but worsened under Maduro. In Venezuela, there is no separation of powers. Under Maduro, there are no public servants, they are servants at the service of Maduro.
JB: So, it must have been difficult to do your job?
LOD: Of course, from the moment Maduro came to power I had problems.
JB: And before Maduro, under Chávez?
LOD: Chávez was more respectful of the institutions. Under Maduro it worsened greatly.
JB: One could argue there was executive interference in other branches of the state prior to Maduro. For example, the jailing of judge Maria Afiuni following Chávez’ critique of a ruling she made. There was a lack of respect for the separation of powers under him too, no?
LOD: The original proposal by Chávez did fade somewhat over the course of his time in power. The respect for the separation of powers changed. I tried to oppose this from my position. For example, one time I had a public confrontation with Chávez. I said publicly that the police were part of the problem regarding violations of human rights. I argued that we had to work towards crime prevention rather than repression. My confrontation with Chávez was even published in the newspaper El Nacional. After this, I had a conversation with Chávez and he had the idea to develop the La Gran Misión a Toda Vida that in theory was good, but under Tareck El Aissami’s leadership, was a disaster.
JB: How did things change under Maduro?
LOD: Maduro barely responded to my requests for discussions. I managed to speak with him during times of crisis. I told him people on the street are hungry, they are eating from the garbage. He told me this was a lie. He denied it. When the opposition won the parliamentary elections…I told him—he was never alone, he was always surrounded by other high-ranking officials—I told him the country had changed, that he had to adjust to this reality and open dialogue with the opposition. Unfortunately, we have seen what his response was.
JB: Following the so-called “La Salida” protests in 2014, opposition politician Leopoldo López was arrested on charges of inciting violence and Antonio Ledezma was later arrested on charges of plotting a coup. What was your opinion regarding these arrests?
LOD: I was the AG, but those who called for the investigations were other prosecutors. Remember, there is independence of prosecutors in Venezuela.
JB: In 2017 following the Supreme Court decision to strip the Assembly of its powers and the subsequent establishment of the ANC you publicly challenged Maduro. Why then and not before?
LOD: If you look at my declarations you will see I had previously expressed public opposition to Maduro. I said in January 2015 that Decree 8610 which allowed the armed forces to use firearms against protesters contravened the Constitution. I tried to speak privately, but I got no response, so I had to announce it publicly. I publicly challenged the police operation, Operation to Liberate and Protect the People. I challenged Maduro, Vladimir Padrino, Gustavo González López. I questioned the procedures under this police operation. Indeed, this was part of the evidence I brought to the International Criminal Court.
In March 2017, the Supreme Court, under Maduro’s control, pronounced two sentences which took away the competencies of the Assembly. This was a major breach of constitutional order. The Supreme Court magistrates did not even have the necessary requirements to be there. But why were they placed there? So Maduro could control them. I opposed this, privately, but then had to take it public. I was firmly against how the state was being managed. And I was persecuted for it.
JB: In 2017 you left Venezuela for Colombia. You were, and are, an opponent to Maduro in exile. Is it possible to challenge Maduro without simultaneously helping the right-wing opposition, or being considered part of this opposition?
LOD:It is important to realize the opposition to Maduro is not homogenous. Many of us oppose Maduro, but there are different currents. I believe the objective for Venezuela cannot be to simply remove Maduro from power. A political project must be a proposal for future happiness, prosperity, and democracy. It cannot just be “remove Maduro.” This is an empty project.
JB: Who will lead this electoral opposition to the PSUV/Maduro? Many Venezuelans may not be willing to back PSUV candidates, but they don’t support traditional opposition parties either.
LOD: I agree there is a desire for alternatives, for new representation. People are feeling empty of hope. What we have not managed to achieve is a way to unify these discontented citizens and to translate this into an option capable of winning electorally.
JB: To win elections at a national level would require a widely known figure. Would beating Maduro electorally therefore mean a leader from the traditional opposition would be the beneficiary? Or is there anybody from a left-wing oppositional position that could fill this role?
LOD: There are two distinct issues here. In local elections, the new leaders must be the natural leaders of these localities. Leaders who the people know, who know the people…who are in permanent contact and interaction. For national elections, this is another story. But new national leaders can appear overnight. Think about Hugo Chávez. You could say the same about Juan Guaidó.
JB: Could you play a political role?
LOD: I think every Venezuelan has this possibility, but obviously those that are in Venezuela are closer to daily realities. It is tough for someone outside the country. I am here to support any new leaders…But these leaders must come from the calle, from inside Venezuela. We must organize a representative option for the 82 percent of people who reject Maduro. No single opposition figure has captured the support of these discontented citizens. We must say to the citizens that they have the power in their hands. The route is to organize, mobilize, and vote. It is likely Maduro will try to cheat in elections. Maybe he can do this with 10,000 votes, maybe with 100,000, but not with millions. With millions he cannot cheat.
JB: Why don’t you return to Venezuela as a representative of this alternative opposition?
LOD: I have no guarantees for my safety. The only guarantee if I return is that they put me in jail, or they kill me.
JB: How do you reflect on the Chavista project?
LOD: When I reflect during my time in exile, I think about the importance of democracy and respect for its institutions. I did not leave Venezuela because I renounced Chavismo. I left to defend the Constitution, the rule of law. Those in power today do not represent the ideals of Chávez. The initial proposals of Chávez have disappeared under the leadership of the so-called heirs of Chávez, and consequently, Venezuelans are living a life without dignity.
John Brown is an Irish Research Council Pathway Fellow and lecturer at @Maynooth University. His work focusing on the emergence and development of left-led democratization processes in Bolivia and Venezuela has won awards from the Irish Research Council, The National University of Ireland, The Fulbright Commission. He just published a new book, Deepening Democracy in Post-Neoliberal Bolivia and Venezuela: Advances and Setbacks.