Venezuela’s rebel prosecutor asks for Maduro’s arrest in symbolic showdown

Venezuela’s former top prosecutor on Tuesday accused President Nicolás Maduro of “orchestrating” massive acts of corruption, including delivering bags full of cash and receiving at least $35 million in bribes as he helped Brazilian construction firms fleece the nation for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Luisa Ortega — a one-time ally of the Venezuelan president — also said that Maduro had personally handled tens of millions of dollars in illicit campaign contributions for the 2012 reelection of his former mentor and boss, Hugo Chávez, who died from an undisclosed form of cancer.

Ortega made her case in a surreal setting: in neighboring Colombia, before a panel of judges who consider themselves Venezuela’s legitimate Supreme Court. Adding realism to the proceedings, the “pretrial hearing” was held in Colombia’s ornate and vaulted congressional building, and when Maduro didn’t appear for the session, he was assigned a public defender.

Ortega said she was providing the judges with bank documents, immigration records and audio recordings to prove her sweeping claims. Those files, however, are under seal, and weren’t provided to the press. And the court said it would decide on April 9 if a trial is merited.

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In a fiery speech, Ortega also asked Venezuela’s armed forces to detain Maduro and urged Interpol to issue an arrest warrant due to the “seriousness of the charges.”

By most accounts, none of that will happen. The Maduro administration considers Ortega and the judges criminals and usurpers, and all are facing arrest warrants in Venezuela.

Ever since she fled Venezuela in August, Ortega has accused Maduro of being complicit in the Odebrecht scandal, but this was her most detailed account of the alleged crimes.

According to Ortega, starting as far back as 2007, the construction giant paid at least $98 million in bribes to Venezuelan officials in exchange for more than $3 billion in potential contracts. Among those deals was a bridge that was supposed to span Lake Maracaibo in western Venezuela. Although she said the country paid $407 million toward the project, the only work done was placing several pylons.

While she was still the nation’s top prosecutor, Ortega said she investigated the Odebrecht allegations in 2011 and 2014. During that time, she learned that Odebrecht and another Brazilian conglomerate called Andrade Gutierrez had offered to pay at least $8 million to political consultant Joao Santana, who was the chief strategist for Chávez’s 2012 reelection.

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The middle man for that and other cash handoffs was Maduro, then Venezuela’s foreign minister, Ortega said. The former prosecutor claimed she had interviewed members of the Chávez campaign in Brazil who testified that Maduro handed them bags stuffed with more than $10 million in cash as he sat in his foreign ministry office.

Just months later — after Chávez’s death and as Maduro was facing a high-stakes presidential race against Henrique Capriles — Ortega claims Maduro asked Odebrecht for $50 million but was only given $35 million. In exchange for that campaign contribution, Ortega said Maduro offered to expedite money that was owed to the construction firm, largely for projects that had never been finished.

Days after Maduro was elected, the government began paying Odebrecht, she said, even as it was clear that those funds were desperately needed to import food and medicine amid a crushing economic crisis.

“They were paying for works that were either incomplete or paralyzed,” Ortega said. They were “monuments to corruption.”

The disgraced company has already admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes to government officials in 11 countries, in a scandal that has rattled the hemisphere. Last month, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stepped down amid revelations that he’d accepted Odebrecht cash before taking office.

Maduro’s court-appointed attorney, Andres Felipe Lindo, started off his defense by saying that he had never met Maduro, and had no relationship with him, but was simply doing his “legal duty.”

Lindo questioned how his client could be held responsible for construction contracts signed by his predecessor, and he said there was no paper trail linking Maduro to the witnesses in Brazil, who are at the heart of Ortega’s case.

Venezuelan opposition Deputy Gaby Arellano, who was at Tuesday’s hearing, admitted the trial might not have immediate repercussions back home, but she said it’s part of the broader international push to isolate the Maduro government. And other countries might consider the ruling as legally binding, she said.

“This could be the beginning of a regime transition,” she suggested.

Outside of the hearing, a group of Venezuelan exiles remarked at how faithfully recreated the trial was, down to assigning Maduro a Venezuelan defense lawyer.

“What if Maduro wins?” they joked.

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