Venezuela’s chief prosecutor broke with the government Friday and rebuked a Supreme Court decision stripping congress of its last vestiges of power, showing a crack in the embattled administration of socialist President Nicolas Maduro amid a torrent of international condemnation over what many decried as a major step toward dictatorship.
In a shocking pronouncement, long-time government loyalist Luisa Ortega Diaz said it was her “unavoidable historical duty” as the nation’s top judicial authority to denounce what she called a “rupture” of the constitutional order in the court ruling against the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
“We call for reflection so that the democratic path can be retaken,” she said to the loud applause of aides gathered around her.
The statement gave a major boost to the opposition, some of whom spent the day sparring with riot police and gearing up for what they hope will be nationwide protests Saturday.
A defiant Maduro defended the Supreme Court in an appearance on state television and said the opposition would be left with “their cold champagne, uncorked.”
But he also called for renewed dialogue between the government and opposition as the only way to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis.
“I’m ready with whoever is willing,” he said.
The Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that as long as lawmakers remained in contempt of earlier court rulings that nullified all legislation passed by congress, the high court can assume the constitutionally assigned powers of the National Assembly, which has been controlled by the opposition for nearly a year and a half.
The United States and governments across Latin America condemned the ruling, which the head of the Organization of American States likened to a “self-inflicted coup” by the leftist Maduro. The United Nations’ top human rights official expressed “grave concern” and called on the high court to reverse its decision.
Late in the day, the OAS announced that it would hold an emergency meeting at its Washington headquarters Monday to discuss the situation in Venezuela.
Opposition leaders, long-marginalized the past 17 years of socialist rule, called on other public officials to follow Ortega Diaz’s example. They also urged the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, to break its silence and defend the constitution drafted by late President Hugo Chavez to which it swore allegiance.
“You have a new opportunity to show the country and international community if you are with the dictatorship or want your children and grandchildren to grow and live in a country where there’s democracy and liberty,” said David Smolansky, a Caracas area mayor.
Amid the turmoil, the normally ever-present Maduro was conspicuously silent until late Friday. Then he went on state TV to argue that Venezuela’s institutions are operating normally and that it is his “right-wing, fascist” opponents who are attempting to break the constitutional order.
He said that in an effort to calm the political impasse he had called an emergency meeting Friday night of the National Security Council, which includes the president of the National Assembly and Venezuela’s chief prosecutor.
“Like all controversy this should be resolved with dialogue,” Maduro said.
The National Security Council meeting began hours later, but with at least one key detractor absent. National Assembly president Julio Borges said he would not attend, likening Maduro’s invitation to a circus act put on by the same person the opposition blames for Venezuela’s crisis.