CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Venezuelan Supreme Court justice and longtime government loyalist who fled the socialist country for a new life in the United States called Nicolas Maduro an incompetent president leading the once-wealthy country to ruins.
Christian Zerpa’s embarrassing defection came days before Maduro begins his second term amid calls from critics and the international community to relinquish power.
Zerpa on Monday accused Venezuela’s high court of becoming a tool of Maduro’s inner circle, lacking any judicial independence since he and a group of ruling party members were appointed to the bench in 2015.
“Nicolas Maduro doesn’t know the constitution, and he doesn’t know the laws,” Zerpa said in a Florida news conference. “This has no other name than a dictatorship.”
A once wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in the throes of a historic crisis after two decades of socialist rule. Millions have fled, while runaway inflation leaves those remaining behind struggling to afford scarce food and medicine.
Maduro is expected to take his oath of office on Thursday before the Supreme Court, launching his second, six-year term.
Political opponents and many foreign nations consider it illegitimate, saying his re-election in May was a sham because popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.
Zerpa said he fled with his family because he didn’t want to play a role legitimizing Maduro’s rule. Relatives staying behind have since been visited by Venezuela’s intelligence police, he said.
“Maduro is incompetent,” Zerpa said. “The country and it public companies are in ruins.”
In far-reaching comments, Zerpa said the military lacks a national conscience for allowing Maduro stay in power, and he accused Supreme Court chief justice Maikel Moreno of having ties with drug traffickers.
Zerpa didn’t provide evidence, holding back sensitive information, but said he’s ready to cooperate with a sweeping U.S. investigation into corruption and human rights abuses among Venezuela’s well-connected.
Maduro loyalist Moreno said Sunday that Zerpa fled Venezuela to escape allegations of sexual harassment charges lodged by women in his office. Zerpa denied Moreno’s claims.
Zerpa surfaced publicly Sunday in Miami, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.
As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives of Amazonas state from taking their seats in congress following the opposition’s sweep of legislative elections in 2015.
The key ruling cemented Maduro’s power, preventing the opposition from amassing a two-third super majority that would have severely curtailed Maduro’s power.
Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro’s government as long as he did, saying he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.
“I will not be able to return to Venezuela,” Zerpa said. “I am a dead man.”
Zerpa is among the top Venezuelan officials who have been sanctioned by Canada, but he has not been targeted by U.S. authorities, who accuse dozens in Maduro’s administration of using their power for personal gain.
Pressure has been mounting against Maduro internationally and from his political opponents still inside Venezuela.