Venezuela’s crisis is a genuine nightmare, but it now also has elements of farce. The nation’s most famed political prisoner has been released to house arrest, and the attorney general who put him behind bars has changed sides and denounced the “state terrorism” of strongman Nicolás Maduro. In turn, Maduro’s supreme court is on the verge of ousting the attorney general on flimsy charges and has illegally named a Maduro loyalist to be her deputy. The deputy has been denied access to the Ministry of Justice, so last week she entered the building in the trunk of a car to gather evidence against her new boss before she was discovered and thrown out of the building. Politics in Venezuela is a cross between a Latin version of House of Cards and an Inspector Clouseau movie.
Venezuela’s socialist dictators have so mismanaged the nation and trampled so savagely on human rights that street demonstrations now occur daily and have left 90 people dead since March. By transferring noted political prisoner Leopoldo López from prison to house arrest after three years of brutal confinement (over a third of which was in solitary), the government of Maduro, whom Hugo Chávez’s chose as his successor, may finally be showing weakness.
López, the mayor of a Caracas suburb, was arrested in 2014 for “incitement to commit a crime” during a peaceful protest he led. The term “kangaroo court” could have been invented to describe the farce of a trial he received, in which the government presented 108 witnesses against him while López was allowed only two of his 60 proposed witnesses. In 2015, the lead prosecutor in his trial fled to Miami and applied for asylum, saying he was ordered to pursue the case even though the government knew the charges were trumped up.
The leading dissident inside the government, Luisa Ortega Diaz, has been using her now-precarious post as attorney general to rail against the government’s arbitrary actions, thuggish repression of protesters, and illegal searches and seizures. Ortega held a news conference last week as the hearing against her began. She announced that she fully expected to be fired by “an illegitimate and unconstitutional” supreme court. “I am not going to validate a circus that will stain our history with shame and pain,” she said.
The supreme court has already thrown out Ortega’s order for the former head of the National Guard to testify about his mistreatment of protesters. Over her objections, it has also appointed Katherine Haringhton as a “shadow” vice prosecutor who is waiting in the wings to replace Ortega. Haringhton is a Maduro stooge who has had her assets frozen in the U.S. for her role in jailing innocent protesters. But when Haringhton tried to enter the Ministry of Justice, she was denied access by security guards at the gate. But the next day, hiding in the trunk of a car owned by a pro-Maduro prosecutor, she managed to enter the building. Once inside, she spent two hours combing through offices looking for evidence of “corruption” before she was discovered and ejected from the premises.
Haringhton’s effort to sneak into the ministry was aided by Narda Dianette Sanabria Bernatte, whose vehicle served as the Trojan horse for her incursion. Sanabria is the prosecutor who first filed formal charges against Leopoldo López in 2014.
Despite the cracks in the formerly solid wall of repression in Maduro’s regime, no one expects his government to go easily.
Despite the cracks in the formerly solid wall of repression in Maduro’s regime, no one expects his government to go easily. “The Cubans have an enormous stake in propping him up, and they run the security services,” Thor Halvorssen, founder of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation, told me. “The military is filled with people involved in funding the drug cartels that send illegal substances to U.S. cities. Any officer who is honest or an opponent of Maduro is likely to have been purged from its top ranks.” Venezuelans are in a tough spot. While they slowly starve and are in danger of losing the strength to fight the government, they face rulers who know they must stay in power at all cost or risk the wrath of their own people.