Luisa Ortega Díaz: Chávez is Responsible for the Tragedy in Venezuela
Orlando Avendano sat down with Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, to discuss her defection from the Maduro regime, and the role she played in serving under Chavez and Maduro as one of the most powerful figures in Venezuelan political life.
No one can say that she isn’t brave. The mere fact that she is sitting here, for an interview, without knowing what we are going to talk about, demonstrates that. And in 2017, without a doubt, she dealt one of the most lethal blows to the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Although she could have continued to benefit from the system, she decided to challenge him. From a position of power within the regime, the Attorney General of the Republic of Venezuela, Luisa Ortega Díaz, told the usurper that he was leading a coup. And that earned her persecution and exile.
Many point this out, and rightly so: for years she lived inside of and benefited from the system. She was attorney general of Venezuela for almost a decade, during which time, first under Hugo Chávez, and then with Maduro, democracy was systematically dismantled. Crimes and violations of human rights were committed. The country fell apart. And everyone asks why she waited so long to defect. Why didn’t she say anything before?
In a luxurious hotel in the north of Bogotá, a city where she now resides and acts as attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz spoke with the PanAm Post. She was accompanied by two people, a man and a woman. Tall, proud, and elegant, these characteristics still do not erase the smile on her face. She brandished it as if she had nothing to hide, and as if she owed nothing to anyone. She does not lower her head because she is certain that all those crimes that were committed during her administration are not hers. That she, in any case, tried to stop them and could not. That her hands were tied, and that, when she could not stand it anymore, she jumped ship.
The Attorney General of Venezuela spoke about the strategy to be undertaken by the government of Juan Guaidó to overthrow Maduro, the denunciations against him, the crimes committed by Chavez, and the crimes to which she is linked. She said that she is not afraid of anything and that she apologizes to anyone whom she has hurt. “I am willing to return to Venezuela and be investigated,” she said.
Unfortunately we do not have much time, so I want to go straight to the point: how will Maduro be overthrown?
You know that with the case of Venezuela the instruction manual was thrown out the window. There are no precedents. Venezuela is living through a sui generis situation and, consequently, our actions must take that fact into account.
I think it’s fundamental, listen now, fundamental, that in order achieve the exit of Maduro, we must unify all democratic actors. It does not matter to which political party they belong or to which ideological tendencies they subscribe. The important thing is that they are decent, honorable people, who love the country and who are fighting the corrupt practices that Maduro and friends have implemented. That is the important thing.
Until there is unification, and that message is transmitted to the country, and the country feels represented by those actors, we will not see, or we will not be on the way to achieving, the exit of Maduro.
That’s why Guaidó has managed to bring so many people together. Because the speech of Guaidó has been a discourse of inclusion. Of incorporation of all democratic actors.
The other task is to have defined objectives. Be clear about where you are going. For example, what do we intend with each one of the actions that we are undertaking? And the other issue is unmasking Maduro. Faced with all the problems that Venezuela is going through, it should be noted that, clearly, Maduro is responsible. I believe that we have lacked strength.
The electrical grid problem is the responsibility of Maduro. Of his ministers. Of the entire regime. The lack of food, of imports, is clear. There is no need to speculate about these aspects. It is necessary to speak clearly to the Venezuelan people: “the person responsible for this happening is Nicolás Maduro, and for these reasons.” Then they are a series of actions that must be executed, and executed by everyone, with sincerity. And with a burning desire to end this tragedy so we can escape.
Has it not been all too clear, especially since February 23, when a red line was crossed, that Maduro’s exit will only be achieved by force?
Many actors point that out. If that happens, the only one responsible will be Maduro. It is he who has ended democratic traditions. He is the one who has closed all doors to finding an exit that would be less traumatic for the population. Maduro himself is the one who has led the country to a confrontation. It has led him to provoke violent outbursts.
Notice that there is an element that I am analyzing as a public prosecutor: Maduro does not command the Armed Forces. Recently he commanded the buses. He himself publicly acknowledges that he leads an outlaw state; that he directs a state where there is no order, and that even before a problem arises, he is prepared to use force. That is to say, Maduro has been preparing to kill the population. Maduro has been executing a plan designed against the population. Not only to exterminate it, by means of the humanitarian crisis, but also to assassinate it with arms.
Prosecutor, now there is a debate in Venezuela – based on the fact that the alternatives for the exit of Maduro are running out – around the application of Article 187, clause 11. What do you think about it?
Certainly, if our Constitution contains such an article, it is because the constituent assembly, when drafting the Constitution, foresaw that it might be needed for a certain situation. Because if the constituent assembly had considered that such a situation was not possible, it would not included it within the Constitution. That is to say, that possibility exists. It is true and it is probable.
What I want to insist on is that, if any of these actions are applied as those established in Article 187, the people who invoke it, first, must think about the country. Is that really going to solve Venezuela’s problem? Is that really what the population wants?
I believe that any situation that leads to more tragedy for Venezuelans would be very painful for the already suffering population…suffering and downtrodden, like the Venezuelan people today.
Prosecutor, you are brave, you were very brave. He was, in 2017, among the fifty most influential people in the world according to Bloomberg. But why did you turn away from Chavismo? Why did you do it? You were taking a risk and exposing yourself to a situation you could avoid. You could have maintained yourself in a privileged position.
Look, it was something years in the making. It didn’t just come out of the blue in 2017. I believe that 2017 was the definitive break. It was the break. Because, you see, in 2016 with the recall referendum, a court opened an investigation – which was legally unjustifiable – and Maduro wanted an investigation against the opposition.
I refused. I said: “No, okay. That is not legally justifiable.”
Yes. I told him so: “Look, that is not justifiable. And your functions do not include giving me instructions about what investigations I’m going to open.” I think that was in September 2016. That was a critical moment.
Also, in 2015, several events occurred that had me butting heads with Maduro. I gave a measure of protection to Mrs. Lilian Tintori, on the occasion of an event that occurred in Ramo Verde. That led me into confrontation with the government.
Were you uncomfortable with the regime?
I ended up being uncomfortable with the government! And I was always uncomfortable with Maduro.
And did you ever feel that at some point, if you did not break with Maduro, that they were going to remove you from office anyway?
I knew that they were going to remove me from office anyway. Because Jorge Rodríguez, in 2017, tells me that he will give me USD $50,000,000 if I resign and leave the country.
My question was: “And where are you getting those USD $50 million to give me? As far as I know you do not have money for that. Where is the money coming from?” And I said: “No, you’re wrong. In any case, you’re wrong.”
They wanted to get rid of me. And the pressures that I endured from January 2017 until I left were terrible. You will remember that my husband’s daughter and grandson were kidnapped.
Was it the state?
I am convinced of that. I do not have evidence, but…Look, Maduro found out that I was going to Brazil for the Odebrecht meeting (at that time I did not know that Maduro was involved, we were just beginning the investigation). He calls me. “They told me that you are going to Brazil. Why are you going to that meeting?” “Well, it is a meeting of attorneys general, and going is the right thing for me to do,” I said. Well, after I left for the meeting in Brazil, they kidnap Germán’s daughter and grandson. I had to go back. It was then that I concluded that they had been behind it.
When the prosecutors left Venezuela – and I was still in the Public Ministry – for Brazil and interviewed Marcelo Odebrecht and Euzenando Azevedo, Mónica Moura, and gathered all the evidence that implicates Maduro, they could not enter Venezuela. They stayed here (Colombia). Because we already had information that they were waiting to imprison and disappear them.
They relocated here even before they took me out of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and I left Venezuela. Because I had to call the attorney general here and ask for help. “I have this problem, please help me with the prosecutors.” And he gave them protection here in Colombia.
Then, I was being a thorn in their side.
That great speech, when you denounced the rupture of the constitutional order. Did you give it knowing the risks, but confident that the political crisis it would generate would lead to the exit of Maduro?
Notice that I thought that things could be fixed. I said: “Things are going to change, suddenly.” Because I thought there were political actors here that would take action. The country could not be governed without a counterweight. You have to have it.
I had been objecting to the subject of the corruption at PDVSA. I do not know if you will remember that in 2016 I tried to investigate some of the directors of PDVSA and I never could. I later found out – because Delcy Rodriguez herself told me that – that Cilia Flores told the directors: “Look, do not pay attention to that investigation.” She then used a derogatory word to refer to me.
So I had thought that things could be fixed. Although already by that date the country was destroyed.
I think that it was harder, apart from the pronouncement of that day, the case of Pernalete. That’s where they told me: “Maduro sent people to look for you to kill you.” Then I had to hide. And I was thinking about staying in Venezuela, but someone told me: “They are really going to kill you, you are going to get run over.”
Did they want to kill you?
But of course! They mocked me. Jorge Rodríguez, Ernesto Villegas and Delcy Rodríguez began to say in the media that Pernalete had been killed by a compañero. And they took videos. So, I asked the prosecutors – because I was not doing the investigatation, the investigators are the prosecutors -; and they said to me: “Look doctor, everything indicates that it was not a bolt gun. Everything seems to indicate that it was a tear gas bomb.” And the videos conform to that. With them we corroborated that it was the National Guard. And I call Jorge Rodríguez, who was the one who had the issue and I said: “Look, Jorge, do not keep saying that, because I already have the evidence that it was the National Guard. And we are going to ask for the arrest of the entire group that was there – because they were all in helmets. I do not know which of the twelve it was, but one of those was the one who killed Pernalete.” “No, we are going to do something, do not ask for the arrest, we will turn one of them over to you,” he told me. And you know what they did the next day? They started attacking me.
That’s when the war began?
Yes, those guys, who knows what they were going to say about me. I had to start reporting everything. And since we were already in a situation where every time I was going to give a press conference they turned off the lights at the Public Prosecutor’s Office, we set up three scenarios. If they turned off the lights at the Public Ministry, we go to the school, if they turn off the lights in the school, we go to such and such a place. And, effectively, they turned off the lights at the main headquarters and we go to the school. That’s where I can give the press conference on Pernalete. That, I think, was my boldest action.
That, prosecutor, caused your exile. Scenes that we all remember with enthusiasm. Because for the first time a strong and deep break in the regime was being generated. And besides, you became a lethal voice against the regime. And while in exile he came after you. But still, there are many Venezuelans, many, who feel uncomfortable with what you did. They do not trust you or view you in a favorable light. They see you as a person who was part of a criminal empire. What would you say?
My work is for all Venezuelans. For those who love me or do not love me. For those who feel sympathy for me and those who don’t. For those who support my work and those who don’t. I work for all of them. I am committed, do you understand? I do not care if they tell me this or that. I will continue on the same path.
Well, no one can doubt the risks you took.
No, and here too! Here they found a guy who was spying on me. The attorney general himself gave some statements: “We apprehended someone who was spying on the attorney general.” I mean, they’re still chasing me. They know that I still have many things up my sleeve.
So, regardless of what they think, I’m going to continue working for the Venezuelans. I acted as a citizen, in a public office – and I tried to serve all Venezuelans. Look, I did not commit crimes.
Recently someone told me: “The deaths of 2014 are on you.” I replied: “Oh, and the prosecutor who was killed in 2014? Then that is on you.”
In 2014 a prosecutor of the Public Ministry was killed. Those who were doing guarimbas. Did you know that?
I don’t remember.
Of the forty-three deaths that occurred, one was a prosecutor of the Public Ministry. And I answered him also, because he told me: “No, you killed people.” But I do not even know how to handle weapons. Not even a knife. “But in any case, I can tell you that you killed the prosecutor, and that killed me because I had to be there for his wife and two children.” They killed him in the guarimbas and that prosecutor was working.
But well, in any case, in the context of my actions – I did not commit any crime; but maybe I made mistakes – if somebody feels injured, I offer apologies. I have no problem in saying that I was wrong. I apologize.
You are sorry?
For the bad things, undoubtedly. For the good things, no.
I would say, they are many. Some argue that you should be imprisoned today, that, eventually, you should have to pay.
Look, I’m going to face whatever. I’m not afraid of anything. But those who say that, are those who have unfortunately been victims of Chavismo. Chavismo sowed hatred. Divide and conquer: that was the maxim. I do not know who said it, but it was very true.
Maduro and Chávez too! They created hatred between brothers, between neighbors. How is it that in 2017, in the course of the conflict, there were neighbors informing on neighbors? “Look, that’s the house where the guarimberos are.” And they entered and destroyed the house. “That’s the car of so-and-so’s son,” and they destroyed it.
That hatred is what has not allowed us to move forward. I’m not asking you to love me. It’s not worth it! That is not my goal. My goal is another: to get out of this tragedy.
Of course, and we need allies that can really deal strong blows against the regime.
Yeah sure. And look, in democracy we have to solve a lot of problems. Overcome our differences. But the issue is that right now in Venezuela that is not possible…you can’t even get a fair trial.
You have just mentioned Chavez. Do you think he has responsibility for the tragedy that Venezuela is experiencing today?
But of course! This all started with Chavez!
Although Chávez is not a cause, he is a consequence.
From an exhausted elite.
It was exhausted. There was no credibility in the political parties. And Chávez emerges with a populist discourse and many of us believed in that populist discourse. That it would keep these things from happening again – even in other countries of the region.
Chávez made a humanist proposal. Was it blurred afterwards? Yes. Notice that there was a always a candidate who almost defeated Chavez – although the difference between Chavez and Capriles was great; however, he drew a significant number of votes from the Chavez sector. Because his proposal said things like: “We will improve the missions, we will improve this type of thing.”
Yes, Capriles was not an alternative to Hugo Chávez, nor his antithesis.
And it is more than that. Although I don’t know for sure, they say that Capriles beat Maduro, it is probable; I did not have access to those figures…Capriles’ proposal at that time was very good. Why? Because it was aimed at the popular sectors.
That’s the debate they were having. But I think that Chávez’s proposals strayed. But with Maduro, boy Maduro did not deserve to be president. That guy is incapable. We all know it and I knew it. What happens is that…
You knew it, prosecutor?
How can I put it? I said it in the way I could, and I could not say I did not vote for him.
You did not vote for Maduro?
Please! Nor my husband.
Did you vote for Capriles?
I can’t tell you that.
I supported Capriles and I regret it. But hey, that’s another issue. Did you make mistakes, then?
And do you recognize them?
Clearly! I have publicly recognized all the mistakes. On the subject of Guaidó (which, by the way, I was one of the first to come out and support him), when I saw him, I said to myself: “This is it!”
Have you identified what your mistakes were?
And what were they?
Well, that’s a subject for a book. Should I tell you?
An exclusive. Give it to me.
Do you remember the case of Coromoto Rodríguez?
The one who worked with Ramos Allup?
In that case I did not make the same mistakes I made with Antonio Ledezma, without giving you too many details. But notice that Coromoto Rodríguez was imprisoned for seventy days, and I declared: “That man has not done anything criminal.” I sent messages and nobody from the opposition understood the messages.
Everyone knew that I was refusing to prosecute Coromoto Rodriguez and they had him imprisoned for seventy days. And we requested his freedom, as with the case of David Smolansky. “No, the Public Ministry has an investigation.” I stated publicly: “There is no investigation into Smolansky. There are no criminal charges against Smolansky.” Anyway, they went behind my back to ask for his imprisonment.
You say you were sending signals to the opposition. For what? Did you need a lifeline?
No, no. I did not need a lifeline. What I needed was for the opposition to sit down, to focus on the country, and not to play the game of Chavismo and Madurismo, that game of hatred. Because if the prosecutor did it, because she was the prosecutor, it was bad. It’s not worth it. There were things that were bad, but not everything.
Notice that when I made a pronouncement on the sentence (in 2017), a week later I had to say to the deputies: “Look, deputies, you are not in contempt of court. That is an invention of Chavismo.” But they did not have the strength to claim their rights.
Did you ever feel like a hostage?
Clearly! Many times! Persecuted, harassed.
Because, look, why did the opposition always go to the Public Ministry if it was the only institution that never had police or guards at the door? You went to the Supreme Court and to get to the door you had to go through ten security checkpoints. You went to the Public Ministry and you arrived at the door where I was without any problem. Ah, they went to protest there and throw molotov cocktails.
That should not be a tactic of the struggle. I have been criticized for, at some point, having defended it.
Oh, how beautiful. Thank you!
The reality is that you headed the Public Ministry for ten years. And there are cases, which maybe you would consider mistakes, but they are more than that. I will mention some: Leopoldo López prisoner; the corruption of CADIVI and PDVSA; the political crisis of 2013 with the death of Hugo Chávez and the coup that took place around the power vacuum; the 2014 protests that resulted in forty-three deaths and the cases of torture – like the young man who was raped by a gun and who you later dismissed, almost mocking him; the case of Judge Afiuni and her rape; the case of Lorent Saleh and his torture. You aren’t responsible for any of this? You were at the helm of the Public Ministry for ten years. And during those ten years, first Chavez and then Maduro, they were dismantling democracy and committing terrible violations of human rights. You never left. You never said anything until 2017. Crimes had already been committed. Aren’t you guilty?
First, I was not in the Public Prosecutor’s Office for ten years as attorney general – perhaps as another official. I was prosecutor of the process…But as attorney general, no.
I’m going to tell you about some of those cases. Regarding Leopoldo López’s, I did not direct that investigation; They were other prosecutors. The investigative prosecutors. One of those prosecutors, called Narda Sanabria – who was the one who put the deputy prosecutor in her car that they imposed on me-. What does this indicate? That they had been coopted to act as instruments of the government. Katherine Harrington was a disturbing element within the Public Prosecutor’s Office – as the wife of González López, although I do not know about it; but she clearly had a sympathy for the SEBIN. She was an element that I had sown in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as were Nélson Mejía and Joel Espinoza. And sometimes they filled me in on things.
Look, the Public Ministry investigated 2 million cases. Some cases slip through your fingers.
The case of…what other cases did you mention?
The theme of …
Why did not you denounce that Hugo Chávez went on television saying: “They put me in jail”? That was a terrible violation of the rule of law.
Well, haven’t people from the opposition also come out to say things about me, and I am not supposed to respond like a bull seeing red? The attorney general is not here to respond publicly! How many times did Iris Varela attack me? How many times did the opposition leaders not say a lot about me? Did you ever see me attacking them?
In other words, my role constitutionally is not to go out and say: “Look, minister, president or deputy of the opposition, what you are saying is not like that”. Not me…
But you did. In 2017 you spoke out and fled the country.
But they were changing the republican form of government! They were changing the Constitution and that is something else.
I told Maikel Moreno: “Look, this sentence…Are you crazy? What is this?” “That’s an order from Maduro,” he replied. “Ah,” I was so irreverent that I told him, “Oh, an order from Maduro. Now it turns out that you follow orders from Maduro.” Perfect. Then I called my team and I said: “Look, this is happening and I’m going to pronounce on this.” And the whole team supported it: “Very good, we agree.”
The case of Afiuni…
Look, there was a part of that, I think I’ve never stopped thinking about…I think you have to open an investigation. What would I say? I started an investigation into the case of Leopoldo López when all these conflicts began. Then the other prosecutor also appeared saying that there were irregularities…I opened my investigation. But not against the prosecutor but to see if what had happened with Leopoldo was correct or not. That was an investigation that we brought that we have almost resolved.
I mean, I was not going to ignore what was happening either. And notice that Leopoldo Lopez agreed to terms of surrender with Diosdado Cabello. Even I did not know that. And I do not know why Diosdado Cabello was handling it, because he was not a judicial authority.
But well, in any case, that…The case of Judge Afiuni…You named another case as well.
Lorent Saleh, that!
Look, you know, he had barely gone into jail, and he said it once, that I had sent him to be tortured. Immediately we publicly requested a precautionary measure for him.
Every time when he said there were problems we sent him for medical examinations. We were ordered to transfer him to a medical center. And we summoned the judge, who did a medical checkup. We even sent our doctors. And he never told us anything else. And I do not know about if that was because of that or because someone said to him: “Look, you’re wrong”.
But if someone protected Lorent Saleh when he got there, it was us. We demanded that there be due process, and we asked for precautions. Because maybe they prosecute you, but they do it in freedom. That’s what I said. Although that decision belongs to the courts, not to me.
And many of those decisions, we request … Even the case of this boy, the one with the rifle. I am very close to his mother and I established a good relationship with her. I really do not remember what the little problem was there.
You said: “If he had been raped, he could not sit down”
Yeah true. Because we didn’t want to kick someone when they were down.
That statement was regrettable.
Do you not regret having said it?
Clearly! I should not have said that. It is true.
At some point didn’t you feel that you were ending up mimicking the process?
Almost! Almost! Yes, I think that was it. A process of mimicry. Yes Yes. Hey, you’re sharp, okay.
Now to finish, prosecutor, would you like to return to Venezuela soon?
Clearly! With all Venezuelans.
Let’s see, you are in another situation, but they took my family, they took away my homeland, they took away my home, they took away my dreams, my desires. That is, my home is this one. Because I don’t have a home. Do you know that my husband has not seen his children since he left? He does not have an American visa and his children are isolated and they can’t leave the United States.
They took away all my assets. I can show that before becoming a public official, I was a lawyer for 17 years. I mean, I had a life as a lawyer and I had some assets.
All my family, everything! A niece, whom I had not seen for ten years, a lady, had to leave Venezuela, persecuted. Everyone close to me was persecuted, simply for being friends of mine. Look at the statement of Tarek William Saab, who said that everyone who helps me, my friends or whatever, will be imprisoned.
The lawyer that was defending me, they imprisoned him. Three months as a prisoner, and he almost died. They handcuffed him in a bathroom full of excrement. Angel Zerpa.
Clearly! He was my lawyer. But they prosecuted him over an invoice.
Now, would you feel comfortable going to Venezuela? Don’t you feel that Venezuelans would do what they did to the Chavistas in Madrid or in New York? What would they beat you up on the streets? Do you think it would be comfortable in Venezuela?
But look: the opposite happens on the street. People are very receptive to me. People want to take pictures with me, support me and give me strength. I have even met with some who were detractors and they treat me in a respectful way; which seems to me an act of greatness. They treat me with a lot of respect. They ask me why I did not do it before or why I allowed such a thing. But with a lot of class. And my appreciation goes to those people.
And I think you have to make the effort so that does not happen. Neither against me nor against anyone. It’s not about that! That is the country that Maduro built! That is the country that can not continue, okay. That is the country I do not want! That is the country that nobody wants! The one that is full of hatred. The one where whenever I see you I question you, I rake you over the coals.
You do not see that they said that being rich is bad? Oh, but full of wealth and comfort. That’s not bad, that’s enticing! But the issue is that you can not do it with Venezuelan money. Now, if it is with the money that you earned? Well, welcome!
In addition, I believe that our objective should be that we all move towards a better quality of life. Not that we all live in ruin or misery..
I do not want that. If that is what is going to become of Venezuela, I do not want any part of it. I want a Venezuela of brothers. A fraternal Venezuela, of reunion, of forgiveness. And I’m not asking for it, no. I assume the risks! Whatever comes, I’m willing to face it. What do they have left to take away from me?
If in Venezuela they want to judge you or want to investigate you, to submit you to a process like that, would you be willing?
Willing to submit to whatever! To go to Venezuela and be investigated. Because I have not committed crimes. And I’m sure I’ll be acquitted. Tell me exactly what crime I have committed.
That is, would you be willing to return to Venezuela to freely exercise your life and submit to any judicial process?
Yes, yes. And there are no legitimate charges against They invented one for me. They prosecuted me for lying. Where is it that lying is a crime? In any case, I never lied.
What will Venezuela look like after Chavez? Do you have aspirations?
Look, it’s too early to say. Right now the objective is clear. I’m focused and I don’t want to lose perspective. It is a single objective: the exit of Nicolás Maduro.
For you, prosecutor, what is the most important thing?
Well, the greatest value is life, freedom, personal integrity. The rights that citizens enjoy.