The first Venezuelan politician to denounce Nicolas Maduro and switch his allegiance to Juan Guaido has said the government is presiding over a “genocide”, adding that 14 other politicians are ready to follow his lead.
Fernando Orozco Cassiani caused shockwaves in Venezuela on Wednesday by announcing during the parliamentary session that he could no longer support Mr Maduro.
“This is a genocide,” he told The Daily Telegraph, in his first interview since defecting. “And I was part of it. I contributed to something which was so terrible; I helped build it. The damage we did to Venezuela was awful.
“When I pledged my allegiance to Juan Guaido, I felt relief. After months of anxiety, and three nights with no sleep, I think I’ll finally sleep well tonight.”
Venezuela has been in a state of high political turmoil for months. Mr Guaido swore himself in as interim president in January, saying that Mr Maduro’s premiership was unconstitutional, leading to a nationwide crackdown on the opposition by Mr Maduro.
Mr Guaido has so far failed to topple the government despite strong international backing, with the US and many other countries recognising him as the legitimate ruler and introducing sanctions to exert extra pressure on the Maduro regime.
In the hours since his dramatic defection, he says he has received a series of menacing phone calls from pro-government thugs.
Yet despite the threats, he insists he is finally at peace with himself. His family have already fled abroad. The other 14, he said, are waiting, watching how Mr Orozco is treated before following his footsteps.
“I’m no superman, but there is no step back for me, even though I’m now being hunted,” he said. “And what is more, the government knows that I know a lot.”
Mr Orozco, 56, is the first pro-Maduro member of the opposition-controlled national assembly to throw his weight behind Mr Guaido.
Furthermore, he was deeply ingrained in the Chavista culture. Representing the state of Trujillo, he was part of a political movement that created the “colectivos” – heavily-armed, pro-government motorbike gangs.
He was also a member of the hard-Left Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200), a group founded in the 1980s which Hugo Chavez led in a failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1992.
The agonising decision to abandon Mr Maduro, Chavez’s successor, was months in the making. On Wednesday night, he says his sources told him the government was holding a crisis meeting, looking for ways to arrest him.
After speaking to The Telegraph he said he was turning his phone off and removing the chip from his phone.
“I know the risk I’m taking,” he said. “But given the situation we’re living in – the chronic shortages of food and medicine, the emigration, the lack of running water or electricity, the suffering of our families – I had no choice.
“The government say it’s all a result of an economic war. But we all know it’s not that – that’s a cover for their lack of structure and governance. We’re a nation of zombies now; we can’t buy clothes to dress ourselves, food to eat. Nowhere else in the world are you expected to live on $7 a month.”
Mr Orozco said his hand was forced by the attacks on the opposition over the last week. Mr Guaido’s deputy, Edgar Zambrano, was kidnapped and towed to a military intelligence prison.
“The attacks have got stronger and stronger,” he said. “I’m waiting to see what happens to me. “The other 14 waiting to join me are scared, of course. They are worried for their families, their children. Some are in hiding. But I’m talking to them and encouraging them.
“We’re strong together; behind us is only tears and death. “So I’m sending a message to the ‘colectivos’ – lay down your weapons. This is not the way. And if the international community wants a sign, we’re giving it now. It’s time to end this genocidal regime.”