From the looks of things in Venezuela, Luisa Ortega is either on her way to becoming a hero of the opposition forces in that country or a candidate to be locked up in one of President Nicolas Maduro’s prison cells. (Possibly both?) She’s the top prosecutor in the Maduro government, but for a while now she’s seemed to be uncomfortable with the strong man tactics that Maduro is employing against her own people. Last month she came out in the press saying that she opposed all of the violence in the streets, but she failed to specify exactly who she was blaming for it, leading some to wonder if she was criticizing Maduro.

This week she appeared to clarify her position, opening up investigations into what’s happened to more than half a dozen protesters who have been killed, injured or “detained” by Maduro’s security forces. In the case of one protester who was killed when he was hit by a tear gas canister, she placed the blame on the National Guard rather than sticking to the government line of saying he was killed by other protesters. (Associated Press)

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor further distanced herself from the socialist administration Wednesday, deepening the widest rift in a government that has otherwise presented a united front against six weeks of protests.

Public Prosecutor Luisa Ortega said a 20-year-old protester had been killed by a tear gas canister fired by state security forces, giving a version of events that contradicted others in the administration who have strenuously denied state forces were involved. Those officials said the protester was killed either by fellow demonstrators or criminals trying to make the government look bad.

Late Wednesday, Ortega announced that she was opening seven investigations into civilians who have been detained by military tribunals as a result of the anti-government protests. She said trials of civilians by military authorities violate the country’s constitution.

This is, to say the least, a rather dangerous position for Ortega to take. It’s no secret what happens to people who incur the displeasure of Venezuela’s dictator and it generally involves a long stay in a dark cell and potentially being beaten to death in some cases. But at the same time I have to wonder if perhaps this might be a sign of the beginning of the end for Maduro’s regime. Ortega may know more than what’s been leaking out to the international media. If it looks like Maduro is on his way out she may be trying to save her own skin so she can wind up on the right side of history and perhaps salvage her career.

But that’s not a sure thing in any way. Olga Onuch and Iñaki Sagarzazu have an analysis of the Venezuelan situation in the Washington Post today and they remind us that Maduro is in control of a machine which still carries a lot of influence with many of the country’s poorest citizens.

Chavismo — the populist movement that Maduro relies on — has spoken especially to the poor over its past 18 years. Many of the poorest citizens rely heavily on subsidies from the government and are closely embedded in networks of Chavismo supporters, such as Local Food Committees (CLAP), state food banks. As a result, they may hesitate to join protests en masse.

Maduro’s patronage and populism, combined with the opposition’s failure to reach out to the working classes and the poor, may prevent the creation of a broad all-Venezuelan protest coalition. That’s a problem if organizers hope to force change in Maduro’s government.

That’s certainly at least one half of the equation. One of the big problems with socialism is that after it’s been in place for a couple of generations, people too often come to accept it as their normal way of life. If they have lived their lives relying on government handouts to survive, they may be fearful of any sweeping change which removes the person who has been providing their food. The other side of this coin is the fact that every community has people embedded in it who are fiercely loyal to Maduro because they are party loyalists who receive much better treatment than their neighbors provided they are willing to spy on them. That sort of network allows the government to quickly detect leaders of opposition groups and eliminate them. If Maduro can hold out long enough, support for the opposition protests may begin to wither through attrition.

But for now, if Luisa Ortega is allowed to move forward with investigations into the actions of Maduro’s government, it may be a signal that he’s getting ready to at least consider some of the opposition’s demands and make some changes. And that might be the best we can hope for at this point.