Luisa and the Talanquera

The Prosecutor General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, holds the key to the crisis. As she tries to manage a position that’s neither government loyalist nor outright critic, we take a closer look at the toughest balancing act in Venezuelan politics today.

Luisa has spoken. My tocaya is against the Constituyente. She says it would only accelerate the crisis. She declines an invitation to Miraflores to discuss the proposal and writes a letter to explain why. The 1999 Constitution is as good as it gets. More importantly, it is Chávez’s legacy. She celebrates the broad, participatory way it was drafted, a process convened and ratified via referendum.

We half expected this. Ever since March 31st, when she created a political storm by declaring  that Supreme Tribunal’s decisions 155 and 156 amounted to a coup d’état, Ortega Diaz has been playing an intricate game: she’s not exactly a dissident, but she’s far from the reliable team player she had long been. Think of it as talanquera tightrope walking.

The weeks that followed were marked by a discreet silence, broken once in an interview to the Wall Street Journal where she said that if the State takes decisions not in accordance with the law, peaceful and legal behavior from citizens couldn’t be demanded.

This week, a surprise: she welcomed representatives from the Colegio Nacional de Periodistas, and a couple of days later her office requested measures to protect journalists covering protests in Venezuela, breaking away from her traditionally critical stance of independent media and journalists.

The Court Martial End-Run

At the heart of the current institutional crisis is the issue of using military tribunals to process civilians detained in peaceful protests which, by some accounts, is an attempt to bypass Luisa’s authority, as her office has acted increasingly more independent and less political since last year. She told the WSJ that the State has to view this use of the military jurisdiction with a lot of concern.

Circumventing the AG’s jurisdiction makes sense for a regime determined to criminalize political activists, politicians and peaceful protesters.

In the current wave of protests, her office’s authority is under siege. Judges have been ignoring prosecutors’ recommendations for the release of protesters, a move with little precedent. The trend began last year with the detention of political activists against whom prosecutors didn’t present charges. In the case of Coromoto Rodriguez, bodyguard to then-AN speaker Henry Ramos Allup, prosecutors requested his freedom after they decided there was insufficient evidence to press charges. The judge decided he should remain incarcerated.

Circumventing the AG’s jurisdiction makes sense for a regime determined to criminalize political activists, politicians and peaceful protesters. Because Ortega Díaz is no longer playing along. She voiced doubt about the investigations opened to Sucre and El Hatillo mayors, Carlos Ocariz and David Smolansky —high-profile Caracas-area elected officials. In her characteristic soft voice, she said they couldn’t find elements that would justify the use of the military jurisdiction in their cases.

Still, even if Luisa’s prosecutors have been more lenient with detainees and acted swiftly in some cases involving killings of protesters, she still has not gone beyond statements when it comes to those responsible for today’s crisis: officers who carry out repression, and those who issue orders. She has the power to prosecute those who have violated the Constitution and those who use the force to block and hurt peaceful protesters. She’s done nothing.

In the lead-up to these events, there seems to be a story of political intrigues and possible fissures within the PSUV ruling party, once a monolithic force ruling all the State’s powers. Ortega Díaz’s soft rebellion has sparked all kinds of conspiracy theories and rumors. Most are plainly false – Luisa’s cancer, Luisa’s resignation, Luisa’s gotten fired. At the heart of the speculation, the question: is a major split at the heart of chavismo about to open up, with her as the loose cannon?

An Unlikely Dissident

Not so long ago, la china, as some call her, was an unquestionably loyal chavista. In 2014, BBC Mundo called her “one of the most powerful women” in Venezuela. Always ready to defend the Bolivarian revolution, she claims never to have been involved in party politics (Caracas Chronicles did a little research back in 2014 and found this claim wasn’t quite true.) She’s on record calling Hugo Chávez “the most humanist man ever to exist on the planet.”

Slowly though steadily, we have witnessed the Attorney General’s metamorphosis into a critical voice within the regime.

Her office charged oppositions’ emblematic figure Leopoldo Lopez on fabricated facts. And in a meeting at the UN in Geneva, in spite of her vocal stance in favor of women’s rights and decisive actions to curb violence against women, she made a shameful and controversial statement denying Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni’s allegations that she had been raped and tortured while in prison. Just last year, Ortega Diaz called out the National Assembly for what she called its “scant disposition to recognize the rule of law” in Venezuela. A hardliner, no doubt.

But that was before.

Slowly though steadily, we have witnessed the Attorney General’s metamorphosis into a critical voice within the regime.

Many have received her shift with understandable skepticism, seeing it as part of a game in which she played the good cop or as taking part in a deceptive maneuver of the kind we have seen with other born-again chavistas: after being chavistas, they became opposition, only to later become chavistas again (remember Zulia’s governor Arias Cardenas calling his then opponent Hugo Chavez “gallina” sometime in the early 2000s?) Others see this as a sign of the regime’s imminent collapse.

It is impossible to tell who, if anyone, is right. Yet, as we know, in Venezuela anything goes.


Part of Luisa’s transformation can be traced back to 2016, when the Operacion para la Liberacion y Proteccion del Pueblo (OLP) started to worry her and the entire country. OLPs are joint military operations to tackle public safety. They’ve been tainted with allegations of serious human rights abuses from the start. Ortega Diaz publicly said that the number of cases brought to her office was a cause of concern. She also pledged an investigation into the participation of civilians’ – in other words “colectivos” – acting as officers in OLPs operations in 23 de Enero and Ciudad Caribia.

Around the same time, Luisa also made a surprise remark that, although it sort of flew under the radar, is of significance: she hailed the National Assembly’s approval of legislation banning the use of cellphones in prisons. There is evidence that extortion and kidnapping rings are run from jail by smartphone-toting inmates. But the country shouldn’t have waited for legislation on this issue, she complained, as an Executive Order would have been sufficient. A warning that there might be trouble in chavismo’s paradise?

While high ranking government officials praised OLPs as successful, her criticism deepened.

Months later the failed “diálogo” was in full force. She obviously supported this effort, but her tone was somewhat different from others in government. “El diálogo debe escuchar a toda la gente. Escucharla sin cuestionarlos” (Dialogue must listen to everyone. Listening to them without questioning them.) Her discourse, as seen in the Venevision interview, also became more emphatic regarding violence: “its consequences could be devastating.”

While high ranking government officials praised OLPs as successful, her criticism deepened. She called for a review of public safety policies but not in a “compulsory and violent manner,” adding that such review should be extended to individuals executing those plans.

The time to elect a new president of the Consejo Moral Republicano came, which based on a rotating presidency, it was Luisa Ortega Diaz’ turn to assume. But it wasn’t meant to happen. Tarek William Saab, the Ombudsperson, took the post. Independent website Aporrea reported she was left aside as her “political position had been unclear” in the weeks leading up to the appointment.

So the other two members of the Consejo Moral voted against her in order to “avoid future hurdles.” It seems Luisa’s subtle criticism, and who knows how many other behind the scenes dynamics, put her in a different place. She wasn’t kicked out of the loyalists club, but she was put on notice. Just recently, Representative Saúl Ortega, a PSUV hardliner, asked her to get to work, claiming she and her office had not investigated recent acts of vandalism in the context of anti-government protests.

Yet it is clear that something is happening within hardcore chavismo that is eroding its base. Luisa Ortega Diaz might be the first to voice her disagreement, but surely she’s not alone. Questioning her truthfulness may be a futile exercise though as what matters is that she is doing the right thing. As an observer in Aporrea wrote about her March 31st statement:

It’s a decision streaming from the impossibility to continue in silence. To shake the rest of chavismo up. The main value of this alert is that it emerges from someone who wields power, who is part of the elite, who also has something to lose if the chavista project disappears, who has excuses to remain silent, but that the circumstances push her to break free from the dirigencia’s vow of silence and sound the clarion.

Yes, perhaps Luisa knows too well that the risk of losing everything the most humanist man on the planet created is painfully high and is trying to somehow preserve it. But it might be too late.