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Venezuela's Constituent Assembly Fires Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're watching Venezuela slide from a democracy into what more countries are calling a dictatorship. An election that let the government rewrite the Constitution is under question, and President Nicolas Maduro is systematically sidelining his critics. Over the weekend, he fired a former ally who had turned against him, public prosecutor Luisa Ortega.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUISA ORTEGA: (Through interpreter) It is regrettable that this national constituent assembly that was installed under these irregularities and with all these problems is the one that is leading this country.

SHAPIRO: Other political opponents are in jail and under house arrest. For the latest from Venezuela, we turn to Reuters correspondent Alexandra Ulmer. She is in Caracas and joins us via Skype. Welcome to the program.

ALEXANDRA ULMER: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, how does the government justify the firing of Luisa Ortega, who is Venezuela's equivalent of attorney general?

ULMER: The government says Luisa Ortega has been turning a blind eye to abuses supporting terrorism, and they've accused her of all sorts of things, from improper use of a private plane to having psychological problems.

SHAPIRO: Do people believe these claims? It seems that the government only turned against her after she became a critic of the government.

ULMER: Well, the opposition is incensed about it. This had been the biggest public break in a normally very united government, at least publicly. And Ortega's office in the last month or so had been incredibly dynamic in bringing to light corruption scandals, accusing the National Guard of abuses during protests. And she had really become a voice from within the government decrying erosion of democracy and violations.

SHAPIRO: So it seems that checks against the government are being steadily eliminated. Yesterday there was an attack on a military barracks. Tell us how that fits into the larger story here.

ULMER: Absolutely. I mean the new legislative body you mentioned doesn't have any checks on its power, so critics say it essentially gives Maduro complete free reign to do whatever he wants. So what we're seeing is that a lot of opposition supporters are becoming increasingly desperate and feel that the democratic pathways to change have been closed, hence why things like an attack on a military base or more violent street protests seem to be coming more common - because opposition people are seeking a way to get rid of Maduro after they feel that four months of street protests and multiple attempts to get rid of his government through democratic ways have failed.

SHAPIRO: As we mentioned, there are growing questions about the election just over a week ago that consolidated Maduro's power. The software company that made the voting machines says the tally was rigged by at least a million votes. Is there likely to be any accountability or recounting here?

ULMER: The opposition has been pushing for a full recount, but so far, we haven't even gotten full detailed results, yet alone a recount. So that possibility is looking increasingly unlikely.

SHAPIRO: How do Maduro's defenders explain his actions?

ULMER: So Chavistas say that the opposition is violent, is disrupting Venezuela and is secretly hoping to ferment a coup with the help of the United States. So they support Maduro's crackdown on protesters who they say are disrupting normal life in Venezuela. Maduro also says that the economic chaos in Venezuela is due to a so-called economic war that he says is being waged by the opposition with the help of United States to hide products and increase prices. Now, most economists of course debunk this as completely untrue and say it's due to currency controls, price fixing, money printing and botched nationalizations.

SHAPIRO: The international criticism is not only coming from the United States. The European Union, Venezuela's own neighbors in Latin America have criticized Maduro's action. Does that seem to be having any effect at all?

ULMER: I think what's particularly interesting is that Latin America has finally spoken up in the past few months and taken a much stronger stance. Of course there's little international condemnation as - in and of itself can do. But we've seen, for instance, the Chilean Embassy here has been taking in opposition politicians, giving them refuge. And Panama's done the same recently. And of course the big one to watch in terms of a game changer is potential U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's crucial oil industry.

SHAPIRO: That's Alexandra Ulmer of Reuters speaking with us from Caracas. Thanks a lot.

ULMER: Many thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.