Last week, fearing she was about to be arrested after being sacked, Ortega fled for her life to neighboring Bogotá, Colombia, along with her husband Germán Ferrer – a former Marxist guerrilla and lawmaker in Venezuela's ruling leftist party. He faced extortion charges. The revolutionary power couple took a boat to Aruba – then flew on a private jet to Colombia where they were offered political asylum. But four days later, for unknown reasons, they took a commercial flight to Brazil where Ortega will no doubt be interviewed by law-enforcement authorities. She has claimed that Maduro and his cronies took nearly $100 million in bribes from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. "I have a lot of proof, concretely in the Odebrecht case, which implicates many high-ranking Venezuelans, starting with the president of the republic," she said during a news conference in Brazil's capital. She also leveled other corruption charges against top Venezuelan officials. President Maduro, meanwhile, has said Venezuela will seek Ortega's arrest with an international warrant. Police raided her home, and state television broadcast images of an allegedly lavish lifestyle.
Some political observes speculate that Ortega and her husband will eventually seek political asylum in the United States – an amusing choice of exiles for a Chavista like Ortega – after all, anti-Americanism has been a veritable cornerstone of Chávez and Maduro's regimes. In the U.S. Ortega would be a prize to U.S. law-enforcement agencies who regard Venezuela as a corruption-ridden narco-state that threatens the region's security. The U.S. has imposed financial sanctions against top Venezuelan officials, including Venezuela's vice president Tareck El Aissami who is accused of being a drug kingpin. His assets include upscale properties in Miami and a U.S.-registered corporate jet. It's ironic: Venezuela's America-hating socialists are fond of their U.S. properties and vacations.
A Dedicated Chavista
Once a fierce loyalist of Hugo Chávez and successor Nicolás Maduro, the 59-year-old Ortega had fallen out of favor with Maduro's government -- all after nearly five months of publicly criticizing Maduro, a bus driver-turned politician, over his brutal crackdown on massive street protests that began four months ago. They have left more than 125 people dead and nearly 2,000 injured. Thousands have been arrested. Protesters are enraged over Maduro's autocratic rule and severe shortages of food, medicines, and other basic goods: large swaths of the command-and-control economy have been nationalized and hyperinflation has destroyed spending power. Above all, Ortega and other anti-Maduro leftists are outraged over Maduro's move to rewrite the constitution. That process is now underway following a sham referendum that created a national assembly, called a Constituent Assembly, which will rewrite the constitution and presumably give Maduro unlimited power – and, of course, reduce the power wielded by anti-Maduro leftists.
Ortega and like-minded leftists accuse Maduro of betraying Chávez's “legacy.” They remain blind to their own folly, however. That's because Chávez's legacy and decades of leftist misrule that preceded him are what put Venezuela on a slippery slope toward the socialist nightmare that Ortega helped create in the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation.
Maduro doubled down on Chávez's bread-and-circuses policies that were paid for with revenues from soaring oil prices. A plunge in oil prices, however, meant that Maduro had fewer petro-dollars to pay the bills -- and so his administration was unable to sustain the social programs that had endeared Chávez to the poor majority and made him a darling of the international left. Venezuela's main source of wealth is oil: it creates little of its own. Now Venezuela is broke. And as in other communist nations with basket-case economies, an exodus of Venezuelans is sweeping into neighboring Colombia and Brazil in what human rights groups and President Trump have called a humanitarian crisis.
Ortega, however, is no saint. She joined Chávez's government three years into the firebrand populist's first term, in 2002, when Chávez was well on his way toward taking Venezuela toward what he eventually called “21st century socialism.” By then he had declared that Venezuela would swim toward the same “sea of happiness” as Cuba, and he regularly took anti-American jabs at the Clinton and Bush administrations. He called himself a "Maoist" and praised Venezuelan-born terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” as a “revolutionary fighter.”
And then there was Venezuela's new constitution. As part of what Chávez called a “peaceful revolution,” he pushed through a major rewrite of the constitution (though unlike Maduro he had public support to do this). So what did that constitution achieve – a constitution Ortega defended as a top official of Venezuela's government?
It took already left-leaning Venezuela on a hard swing toward the left – what critics at the time accurately described as a major step backward for a nation whose statist and oil-dependent economy had been in decline for years. In short, it provided a model for a centralized economy that remains in this hemisphere only in communist Cuba – all of which I wrote about for the Houston Chronicle in November, 1999. "It's a Christmas tree," said political analyst Michael Rowan of the constitution after it was drafted. "Its fundamental premise is to create a command-type economy – one that's out to provide and distribute wealth that does not exist, rather than creating wealth."
Among other things, the new constitution invested more power in the president and military; eliminated the Senate in favor of a one-chamber Congress; and promised to expand a variety of benefits such as free health care, free university education and social security regardless of whether one pays into the system. It also put an independent Central Bank under more political oversight. Allan R. Brewer-Carias, a Venezuelan constitutional expert -- and one of a few opposition assembly members at the time -- told a news conference that the new magna carta "will not assure the political system's transformation...It's full of centralism...authoritarianism and militarism."
Ortega, to be sure, is among several high-level officials who have spoken out against Maduro in recent months – or who have left the government and fled to the U.S. One of the more tragic such figures was the late Luis Miquilena -- a life-long leftist and politician who, at age 80, was president of Chávez's Constituent Assembly which rewrote the constitution – a position he took after guiding Chávez to a landslide election win in 1999. He subsequently served in Chávez's cabinet for three years. But Miquilena eventually changed his mind about Chávez and the political movement he inspired: Chavismo. Speaking during a news conference eight years into Chávez's presidency, in January 2007, Miquilena all but admitted he'd been a useful idiot. "This is a government with a hypocritical authoritarianism that tries to sell the world certain democratic appearances. The government is not abiding by any rule. It has all the characteristics of a dictatorial government," he said.
This is Chávez's legacy, to be sure: the same government that Ortega and fellow anti-Maduro leftists now look fondly upon. It will be interesting to see how many of them eventually admit that they too were useful idiots.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chávez's rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.