CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's chief prosecutor called Thursday for Venezuelans to reject President Nicolas Maduro's push to rewrite the nation's constitution and urged the Supreme Court to annul the process immediately, further deepening her divide with the government.
Grasping a copy of the nation's blue constitution book in her hands on the steps of the Supreme Court, Luisa Ortega Diaz said she was acting to defend both the embattled nation's constitution and its very democracy.
"What's at play here is the country," she said. "The integrity of Venezuelans."
Ortega Diaz's remarks were her strongest repudiation yet of Maduro's effort to rewrite the nation's constitution, an act she said would destroy the legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez, who drafted the current charter.
A long-time government loyalist, Ortega Diaz first broke publicly with the Maduro administration in late March when she decried a supreme court decision gutting congress of its last remaining powers. Since then, the gulf between Ortega Diaz and the government has only grown, with has repeatedly questioning the validity of convoking a constitutional assembly without the proposal first facing a referendum.
Maduro ordered the National Electoral Council to convene the assembly, stating it was his constitutional right, a position the opposition rejects. He also designed the rules by which delegates to the assembly would be elected. The government-stacked council quickly rubber stamped both requests and is moving forward to hold the elections in late July.
Ortega Diaz is requesting that the Supreme Court's electoral chamber invalidate the process. In doing so, she is sidestepping the court's constitutional branch, whose magistrates were responsible for the March decision against the opposition-controlled congress.
That decision was later reversed amid a storm of international criticism and Ortega Diaz's own rebuke. But it instigated the current wave of protests that has left nearly 70 people dead and continues to rock the country. Demonstrators are frustrated with the nation's vast food and medical supply shortages, triple-digit inflation and rising crime.
The Trump administration slapped sanctions in May on the Supreme Court's president as well as seven justices from the constitutional chamber who issued the controversial decision. The court's constitutional chamber has declared null and void eight National Assembly laws between January and October 2016, after just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.
Ortega Diaz is accusing the National Electoral Council of breaking key democratic principles such as universal suffrage in approving Maduro's constitutional assembly. Maduro's terms call for allotting a specific number of votes to specific population sectors such as the disabled, fishermen and retirees, as well as one per municipality. Analysts say those terms will heavily favor the government.
"The appeal I am attempting is to defend the rule of the people," she said.
Her actions were immediately embraced by members of the opposition who until the current crisis accused her of being Maduro's enabler.
"If hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans join the chief prosecutor it would represent a huge act of pressure and protest," said Freddy Guevara, who has been spearheading the anti-government demonstrations as vice president of the opposition-controlled congress.
The nation's chief prosecutor also decried Maduro and his top administration officials for employing what she termed "violent calls" to participate in the constitutional assembly. Maduro has frequently referred to opposition members refusing to participate in the assembly as "fascist terrorists." Crowds at pro-government events frequently call for them to be jailed.
"We can't live in a country like this," Diaz Ortega said.
Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.