Venezuelan officials say opposition leader faces criminal charges

Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado talks to members of the national guard during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 16, 2014.
Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado talks to members of the national guard during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on March 16, 2014.
(Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty Images)
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CARACAS, Venezuela — One month after the arrest of a key opposition leader, Venezuelan government officials have moved to prosecute another: national assembly member Maria Corina Machado.

The Venezuelan National Assembly has ordered Atty. Gen. Luisa Ortega Diaz to begin proceedings to strip Machado, a harsh critic of President Nicolas Maduro and National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, of her legislative immunity and place her under criminal investigation related to recent antigovernment protests that have left at least 30 dead.

Cabello told reporters Tuesday in Caracas that the charges Machado faces include criminal conspiracy, homicide and treason. Speaking of Machado, Cabello said, “You will be judged; you’ll never be president of this country…. Come down off your cloud.”


During a National Assembly session earlier in the day, Cabello repeatedly referred to Machado as “assassin.”

Machado has tried to rally students and other government opponents since Leopoldo Lopez, a former mayor of a Caracas borough, was arrested Feb. 18 on charges of incitement to violence. The protests focus on rising violent crime, increasing shortages of basic food, electricity and water, and a weak economy with an inflation rate of more than 50%.

In addition to those killed in clashes, more than 300 were injured. Each side blamed the other for the violence. Heavy police presence in affluent parts of eastern Caracas, a focal point of protests in the capital, has reduced demonstrations in recent days.

But clashes continue in other cities across Venezuela, particularly in San Cristobal, the capital of western Tachira state, where 18-year-old engineering student Anthony Rojas was fatally shot Tuesday night.

After the government action against Machado became known, she released a video over social networks in which she said, “They want to eliminate us but they only make us invincible. There are millions of us on the streets and we won’t stop until we achieve democracy.”

Machado and other opposition assembly members were attacked by other legislators on the floor of congress last April. Although Machado’s nose was broken in the melee, Cabello, who presides over the assembly, issued no disciplinary measures.


This month, Machado told reporters she was attacked by government supporters in the airport at Puerto Ordaz in eastern Venezuela after leading marches with other Maduro opponents.

Machado also opposed the late President Hugo Chavez. In 2003, she cofounded Sumate, an organization formed to gather signatures to mount a 2004 recall referendum. Chavez easily won the vote.

Machado is scheduled to address the Organization of American States on Friday in Washington to level charges of human rights violations against the Maduro government. She is being given speaking time by the Panamanian government, which is locked in a dispute with Maduro over $1 billion in debts owed to Panamanian merchants, including Copa Airlines and businesses in the free trade zone in Colon, Panama.

Government officials also brought charges of “aggravated defamation” against one of Venezuela’s few remaining opposition newspapers, TalCual, and its editor, Teodoro Petkoff. Petkoff appeared Wednesday before prosecutors at the attorney general’s office to respond to charges. In a video sent to news media, Petkoff said the charges were a “pretext” to limit freedom of expression.

The Germany-based express delivery firm DHL this week added its name to the long list of airlines and couriers who are suspending or cutting back services in Venezuela, citing either nonpayment or the unsettled political climate.

Representatives of 21 airlines met with Venezuelan officials Tuesday to discuss the $3.7 billion in air ticket revenue that the International Air Transport Assn. says the Venezuelan government owes to carriers.


After the meeting, Transport Minister Herbert Garcia Plaza said the Venezuelan government would try to keep current by advancing 2014 ticket revenue to carriers while “looking for a negotiation mechanism” to pay the airlines the debt it owes them for previous years.

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.