Venezuela

Venezuela’s ex-prosecutor Luisa Ortega accuses Maduro of profiting from nation’s hunger

Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, second left, talks with her counterparts during a meeting of Mercosur trade bloc prosecutors, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. Brazil's attorney general is sharply criticizing the recent ouster of his counterpart in Venezuela. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot said Wednesday that the removal of Ortega Diaz from her post was "an institutional rape" and that it eroded the independence of Venezuela's justice system.
Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, second left, talks with her counterparts during a meeting of Mercosur trade bloc prosecutors, in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. Brazil's attorney general is sharply criticizing the recent ouster of his counterpart in Venezuela. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot said Wednesday that the removal of Ortega Diaz from her post was "an institutional rape" and that it eroded the independence of Venezuela's justice system. AP

Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor provided more explosive details about high-level corruption in the government on Wednesday, accusing President Nicolás Maduro of profiting from the nation’s hunger crisis.

Speaking in Brazil at an international meeting of attorneys general, Luisa Ortega said she had documents that appeared to link Maduro to a Mexican company that provides products to Venezuela’s state-sponsored food-distribution program.

Ortega said the company, which she identified as Group Grand Limited, “is presumably owned by Nicolás Maduro,” although it’s registered under other names.

She also said Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht had paid Diosdado Cabello, a powerful Venezuelan government leader, $100 million in bribes. Those payments were made to a Spanish company that is owned by Cabello’s cousins, Ortega said.

Odebrecht, the scandal-plagued Brazilian construction firm that has confessed to bribing governments throughout the hemisphere, won $300 billion worth of contracts in Venezuela, Ortega said, and at least 11 of the infrastructure projects were never finished. Analysts said the total price-tag seemed inflated.

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“I am going to give [evidence] to authorities in different countries — the United States, Colombia, Spain — so they can investigate,” she said. “In Venezuela, there is no justice. It’s impossible to investigate any act of corruption or drug trafficking.”

While she didn’t provide any evidence during Wednesday’s speech, she asked the international courts to review the cases because the “rule of law has been dismantled” in Venezuela.

Ortega, a longtime government insider, was fired on Aug. 4 and replaced by Tarek William Saab. On Wednesday, Ortega claimed Saab was the subject of six investigations for allegedly defrauding Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.

Ortega and her husband fled Venezuela on Friday and Maduro has said he will be asking Interpol for their arrest on corruption charges. During a nationally televised address Tuesday, Maduro called Ortega a “liar” and said the only thing his administration had done was “work hard.” On Wednesday, Saab said Ortega’s allegations “lacked merit” and accused her office of burying corruption cases.

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The allegations that Maduro might be profiting from the nation’s hunger are incendiary in a country that boasts the world’s largest crude reserves but where food and medicine shortages are rampant.

Hunger and the collapsing health system have been some of the main drivers of anti-government protests that have left more than 120 people dead in recent months.

Reacting to Ortega’s statements, Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda state, asked her to “get to the bottom” of the corruption scandal.

“The people need to know who is stealing their money and how much they’ve robbed,” he said in a statement. “If they hadn’t stolen the income of Venezuelans, we would never be in this economic situation of shortages, hunger, and poverty.”

Ortega, who had been attorney general since 2007, was considered an administration hard-liner until recently. She’s thought to be one of the officials targeted by the Obama administration when it imposed visa and financial-transaction bans on unnamed individuals involved in squashing anti-government protests in 2014.

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In 2015, Ortega suggested she was hiring a lawyer to defend herself against the presumed U.S. sanctions. The U.S. State Department, citing privacy laws, said it could not comment on Ortega’s visa status.

Her first high-profile rebuke of the Venezuelan administration came in March, when the Supreme Court tried to dissolve congress. Since then, she also has accused the government of systematically violating human rights as it clamped down on protests.

Asked by reporters in Brazil on Wednesday what her next move would be, Ortega said she would be returning to Colombia where she has been offered — but not yet accepted — political asylum. Despite speculation, she said she has not been offered political asylum in the United States.

Ortega said she expected to be vilified in Venezuela and said she had received death threats since leaving her country. If anything should happen to her, she said, “the Venezuelan government is responsible.”

This story has been updated since publication

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