MONTREAL — It happened every week. On Friday mornings, Venezuela’s top prosecutor, the justice minister, the solicitor general, assorted Supreme Court justices, police chiefs and top officials would meet in the vice president’s office to review politically sensitive court cases and decide how they should be handled. In each instance, the vice president had the last word: dismissal, acquittal or conviction.
Venezuela’s entire criminal justice system, it turns out, is an elaborate pantomime — a farce in which politicians bark orders and judges carry them out, no questions asked, or pay for their insolence with their jobs or even their freedom.
This is an account of Venezuela you might expect to hear from one of President Hugo Chávez’s right-wing opponents. In fact, it comes not from some aggrieved party but from one of the principals: Eladio Aponte, formerly the president of the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s Penal Chamber — the country’s final arbiter in all matters criminal — who gave a tell-all interview last week to a Venezuelan journalist working for the Miami-based television channel SOiTV.
Aponte earned his revolutionary bona fides as the military prosecutor general, establishing himself as a loyal Chávez lieutenant, willing to follow orders from on high without hesitation. His promotion in 2005 to the highest level of Venezuela’s justice system followed as a matter of course. That perch gave him the authority to decide which lower-court judge would preside over any given case. It also made him privy to the extraordinarily sensitive information handled at those Friday meetings.
Then — and these details are still murky — Aponte seems to have stepped on some very important toes. Earlier this year, the National Assembly, which is Chavista through and through, dismissed him from his post on the Supreme Court and moved to charge him for a relatively minor crime. Aponte, who knows the beast from the inside, could see which way the wind was blowing and fled the country.
Last week a plane from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took him to the United States, where Aponte, who reportedly had specialized in getting politically connected drug traffickers within the Venezuelan military out of trouble, began to collaborate with U.S. counternarcotics investigators.
In the whistleblowing interview, Aponte says that “everyone from the president on down” would call him to ask for trials to be tampered with in different ways. Political opponents of the regime were routinely framed, including elected officials like José Sánchez Montiel, a member of the National Assembly who served years in jail on a murder charge that Aponte describes as purely trumped up. And to hear Aponte, that was all in a day’s work.
These incendiary revelations have yet to be corroborated, and there’s room for being skeptical of a man as corrupt as Aponte freely admits to have been. But it’s significant that so far the Venezuelan government, rather than denying Aponte’s allegations, has mostly chosen to attack him for disloyalty, for breaking the code of omertà that defines Chavista justice.
Even if just a fraction of Aponte’s claims turn out to be true, this is the kind of scandal that would send any democratic government into a deep crisis. In Venezuela, though, the news is already being eclipsed by rumors about Chávez’s cancer. Small wonder: all Aponte did was put meat on the bones of a story everybody already knew about. And that, in itself, is another kind of indictment.