The Americas

Venezuela's top prosecutor breaks with government, protests escalate

An opposition supporter holding a placard that reads "No more dictatorship" in Caracas, Venezuela March 31, 2017.

An opposition supporter holding a placard that reads "No more dictatorship" in Caracas, Venezuela March 31, 2017.  (Reuters)

Venezuela's powerful attorney general on Friday rebuked the judiciary’s takeover of congress, breaking ranks with President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government as protests and international condemnation grew.

"It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order. It's my obligation to express my great concern to the country," said Luisa Ortega, usually considered a key ally of the Socialists who have ruled Venezuela for the last 18 years.

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While various prominent political figures have leveled criticism after leaving the government, it is extremely rare for a senior official to make such criticism. It may be interpreted by opponents that Maduro's internal support is cracking.

From early morning, several dozen students marched in Caracas to the Supreme Court, which this week assumed the functions of the opposition-led National Assembly.

They were pushed back by soldiers with riot shields.

Small pockets of protesters also briefly blocked highways around Caracas, waving the Venezuelan flag and banners reading: "No To Dictatorship." Police moved them on.

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"We have to demand our rights, in the streets, without fear," said opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro, who led a knot of demonstrators into a subway train.

Having already shot down most of the National Assembly's measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the pro-Maduro court this week said it was assuming the legislature's functions because it was in "contempt" of the law.

Outraged foes said that was a "coup" against an elected body.

Maduro, 54, a former bus driver and self-declared "son" of late leftist predecessor Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected in 2013 amid widespread support for the ruling Socialist Party's oil-fueled welfare programs.

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But his ratings have plummeted to just over 20 percent as Venezuelans struggle with a fourth year of recession, scarcities of food and medicines and the highest inflation in the world.

Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an "economic war". The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.