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In Venezuela, Some Government Loyalists Split With President Maduro


Critics of Venezuela's government say President Nicolas Maduro is taking an authoritarian turn. Some government loyalists have split with Maduro, and they're paying a heavy price. John Otis reports.

‎FREDDY ARENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: ‎Freddy Arenas is the mayor of San Mateo, a rundown farming town just west of Caracas.

ARENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: His office is decorated with photos of his hero, the late Hugo Chavez, who ushered in Venezuela's socialist revolution in 1999. But there are no portraits of President Maduro. Arenas has broken with the president over Maduro's plan to hold elections later this month for a constituent assembly. Besides drafting a new constitution, this assembly will have extraordinary powers and could close Congress or postpone next year's presidential elections.

ARENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "This is the last straw," Arenas says. "Venezuela would no longer be a democracy. It would be a dictatorship." The reaction from the Maduro government didn't take long.

ARENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Within two hours of going public with his concerns, Arenas says he was denounced as a traitor and expelled from the ruling Socialist Party. Still, as Venezuela's economic and political crisis worsens, more government officials are speaking out. Their voices have bolstered the political opposition as it fights against the constitutional rewrite and pushes Maduro to call early presidential elections. But those who break with the government pay a heavy price. Take attorney general Luisa Ortega.


LUISA ORTEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In March, Ortega denounced Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution as an illegal power grab. Since then, she's been the target of government slander.


PEDRO CARRENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In this interview on state TV, ruling party lawmaker Pedro Carreno called Ortega insane.


CARRENO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In addition, the government removed her bodyguards, banned Ortega from leaving the country and froze her bank accounts. She's being investigated for official misconduct and could be fired by the Supreme Court. On top of official censure, turncoats are sometimes derided by the opposition for having spent years upholding controversial government policies. Ortega is a prime example.

ALFREDO ROMERO: She's responsible for political prisoners. She's been responsible for not investigating a lot of perpetrators in Venezuela for torture or some things like that.

OTIS: That's human rights lawyer Alfredo Romero. But in spite of his misgivings, he says that Ortega and other officials who muster the courage to break with the government should be applauded.

ROMERO: To fight for a peaceful transition, it means that you have to accept that these people have changed. It's very positive. We need more Luisa Ortegas.

OTIS: Crucially for Maduro, the Venezuelan armed forces remain loyal to the president.


GABRIELA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Gabriela Ramirez, who recently split with Maduro after serving as his top human rights official, says many people inside the government and the military no longer support the president but fear reprisals if they jump ship. Indeed, the backlash can be brutal...

ARENAS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: ...So says Arenas, the San Mateo mayor. Arenas tells me he's still being targeted for speaking out against Maduro. The government's latest move is to dismantle one of his city's public health clinics.


OTIS: The clinic is just down the street, and I pay a visit. Sure enough, all the doctors are gone except for one, who lingers behind to take away the clinic's medical supplies. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in San Mateo, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.