Is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, once a mild-mannered bus driver, steering the world’s 13th-largest oil producer straight off a cliff?
Within the last few weeks he’s come to the brink of war with not one but two neighboring countries. A dispute last month with Colombia resulted in tens of thousands of refugees scrambling from a border region and caused one local politician to label him “The South American Hitler.” Last week saw Maduro accused of plotting to invade Guyana, his neighbor to the east.
While experts warn that such risky behavior could destabilize the entire region, Maduro himself accuses Bogotá and Washington of being in league to overthrow him—and also boasts of having spies in the White House.
So just what is Maduro hoping to gain from all of this?
Hand-picked by the late socialist strongman Hugo Chavez as his replacement in 2013, Maduro has overseen the swift and profound decline of Venezuela—from an oil-rich, leftist powerhouse under Chavez to an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world. When oil prices were high and revenues extravagant, that cushioned the people to some extent from the incompetence of the government. But that buffer is long gone.
Violent crime and kidnappings are so rampant that the State Department just issued a travel alert warning away U.S. citizens. And commodity shortages have become so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.
Like many autocrats, Maduro appears to suffer from an acute case of political paranoia. He has cracked down on opposition leadership—handing out a 14-year-prison sentence to popular opposition leader Leopold Lopez this month over trumped up charges. And he’s repeatedly authorized the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.
Not is Maduro’s persecution complex limited to domestic affairs. He recently claimed neighboring Colombia and Guyana are waging “economic war” against Venezuela—charges which conveniently justify violating the sovereignty of both nations.
“If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all,” Isaacson says. “He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic.”
Among his strange declarations to the press: claiming to receive advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird.
Such is the state of things at the moment, that “one of the main interests of the international community now is to prevent a catastrophic implosion,” says Isaacson, because that could have disastrous implications for the entire region. “Something very ugly could happen in the next few months,” he warns.
“President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”
Something very ugly has already happened along Venezuela’s 1,500-mile border with Colombia, where Maduro’s forces have been involved in attacks on migrants for the last five weeks.
Because Maduro’s far-left government subsidizes gas and fixes the cost of food and other basic consumer goods, the rugged frontier region is home to a thriving black market smuggling commodities into Colombia, where they can be sold for great profit.
Despite the relatively small flow of goods across the border, Maduro has chosen to blame these smuggling operations for Venezuela’s chronic shortages. Furthermore, he casts the black market traffickers as the work of right-wing U.S.- and Colombian-backed operatives bent on regime change. In an effort to clamp down on illicit activity, Maduro closed the frontier last month and began targeting any and all Colombian citizens caught on the wrong side of borderline.
Experts say Maduro is again tilting at windmills.
“It is true that the low value of the Venezuelan currency causes a flow of products from Venezuela to Colombia. However, that does not explain the problem of scarcity,” writes José Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, in an email to The Daily Beast.
According to Carrasquero, the combination of inflation, reckless currency printing, and black market activity inside Venezuela is actually to blame for the chronic shortages rocking the nation.
“One might think that the closure of the border is the solution, but rather, [that] creates problems for innocent human traffic ... and affects the normal trade in goods with other countries,” writes Carrasquero.
Despite such criticism, when Maduro launched a brutal, anti-migrant campaign along the border in mid-August, Venezuelan troops rounded up hundreds of Colombian peasant farmers, many of whom were indigenous people whose ancestral lands traditionally span the frontier.
The sight of their compatriots’ houses being bulldozed touched off a wave of panic among the locals, resulting in about 20,000 terrified refugees fleeing across the border, according to the UN.
Maduro was just warming up.
In the following weeks both countries would recall their ambassadors. Venezuelan warplanes violated Colombian airspace at least twice and ground troops began making incursions over the border to harass locals and burn vehicles. A poll in mid-September showed that almost half of all Colombians believed full-scale war to be imminent.
Then, on September 19, Maduro’s soldiers opened fire on a caravan of Wayuu indigenous people as they were returning from a funeral ceremony on Venezuelan turf—killing two unarmed members of the tribe just 500 meters from the border.
The aunt of one of the slain men, Genoveba de Piayú, told Colombia’s RCN radio that she was riding in the caravan at the time of the incident, but that her vehicle had become stuck in a roadside ditch. Her nephew and a friend were coming to help on a motorcycle when the soldiers opened fire on them.
“We were pleading with [the soldiers] not to shoot, because there were women and children aboard the truck—but they paid no attention and gunned [our men] down without a word,” de Piayú said.
This reporter visited the border region between Venezuela and Colombia earlier this year to meet with endangered indigenous groups who are often caught up in the long-simmering political conflict. Not surprisingly, their version of violence on the frontier differs considerably from Maduro’s.
Locals say the porous border is home to a variety of armed groups, including leftist guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who move easily back and forth between the two nations—and allegedly receive arms and ammunition from the Venezuelan military.
“The guerrillas make their attacks over here [in Colombia], and then retreat across the river into Venezuela, where the Colombian army can’t go after them,” Roberto Cobaria, leader of the U’wa people (who live just south of Wayuus), told me when we met in the ethnic group’s traditional homeland—which also happens to be insurgent-held territory.
“We are hunters, but not fighters—and we try to stay neutral,” said Cobaria, who has seen the cross-border struggle firsthand. The U’wa shaman was working with three prominent U.S. activists when the FARC abducted them near the Arauca River in 1999; the Americans were later found executed on the Venezuelan side.
“All we ask is to be left alone by both the guerillas and soldiers and everyone else, too,” Cobaria told me. “All we want is to live in peace.”
On the eve of a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, last week—a summit that was intended to discuss, among other topics, the recent violations of Colombia’s airspace—Maduro defiantly declared his plan to purchase a dozen new fighter jets from Moscow.
And although the meeting between the two leaders seems to have resulted in a temporary agreement to combat smuggling on the border, no specific mention was made of the tens of thousands of displaced people. Immediately following the summit Maduro ordered the border with Colombia closed in yet another Venezuelan state.
Then things took another turn to the surreal.
Less than 24 hours after at least tentatively resolving a conflict with Colombia, reports began to emerge that Maduro was massing marine and ground forces along Venezuela’s eastern border with English-speaking Guyana.
Guyana’s President David Granger decried “extraordinary military deployments” along the country’s resource-rich Essequibo region, and described the buildup to the AP as “hostile and aggressive.”
Granger also retaliated by deploying Guyanese troops along the frontier, although it’s doubtful if the nation’s small army could withstand an all-out assault from its much larger neighbor.
For more than a century, Venezuela has sought to annex Essequibo (which accounts for about 40 percent of Guyana’s national territory), even going so far as to recently persuade Google Maps to give new, Spanish-language names to major streets and boulevards in the former British colony.
Tensions have increased since Exxon-Mobil’s discovery this year of major off-shore oil deposits in Essequibo. Since the Exxon-Mobil report was made public, Maduro’s blame-the-victim rhetoric against Guyana has been strikingly similar to the excuses he gave for the fracas with Colombia. He even accuses his tiny and impoverished neighbor of seeking to “attack” and “destroy” Venezuela, according to the Miami Herald.
Laying claim to Guyana’s newfound oil wealth would surely be a great boon for Maduro’s cash-strapped administration—but WOLA’s Isaacson believes the black gold is “just a pretext” for the sudden troop buildup on the border.
Isaacson says Maduro is scared witless about upcoming mid-term elections, scheduled for December 6, because Maduro's Chavista party is likely to take a shellacking at the polls—and his fear is the key to understanding the method behind his recent madness.
“You’ve got leaders of the opposition being locked up. You have almost no independent media anymore. You have a deeply unpopular president, but people generally are too afraid to protest—and everybody with their eye on these December 6 legislative elections,” Isaacson explains.
“So [Maduro] has been playing the nationalist card more, in order to rally the armed forces as well as the people behind him. And he’s been picking fights and spats with both neighbors,” explains Isaacson. “President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”
Professor Carrasquero agrees with Isaacson’s assessment.
“Maduro’s government [is trying] to divert attention from those issues that really affect the quality of life for Venezuelans,” Carrasquero writes.
“There has been no democracy in Venezuela for the last several years,” the professor adds. “The ruling party makes decisions and other public authorities are called to do what is necessary to obey those decisions. In this context it is easy to hide violations of human rights.”
Isaacson also worries about additional rights violations in the run-up to the election, including “gerrymandering and using public money to buy votes,” as well as continued violence against the opposition.
When asked to imagine the future of Venezuela, Isaacson says he envisions “generalized poverty and a government that still—even though it has very few resources—is able to control everything.”
It seems clear that Maduro, the onetime bus driver, is willing to do whatever it takes to stay at the wheel, even if that means wrecking the state—and perhaps taking the rest of the region down with him.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Friday, September 11, 2015
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A Venezuelan judge ordered opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez jailed for almost 14 years for inciting violence during last year's sometimes bloody protests, handing down a maximum sentence despite U.S. calls for his release.
About 200 supporters of the country's most-prominent jailed opposition leader gathered in a Caracas plaza expressed disbelief and sadness late Thursday when they learned of the verdict. Several wept and consoled each other with hugs.
Reflecting the passions stirred by the trial on both sides of Venezuela's deep political divide, an elderly man died and several people were injured earlier Thursday during clashes outside the courthouse between government loyalists and Lopez supporters.
The opposition leader has repeatedly denied the charges and says he only urged peaceful demonstration against President Nicolas Maduro. Venezuela's socialist government, however, blames him for the violence that left more than 40 people dead during street protests in 2014.
Supporters of the 44-year-old, Harvard-educated former mayor of a wealthy Caracas district say the trial was marred by irregularities. The court rejected all but two defense witnesses, both of whom ultimately declined to testify, while letting the prosecution call more than 100.
The trial was all but closed to the public, and Lopez sometimes refused to attend out of protest. His lawyers said Judge Susana Barreiros abruptly ended the proceedings last week even though many witnesses had yet to take the stand.
Combined with time served, the sentence of 13 years, 9 months, 7 days, and 12 hours was the maximum punishment for Lopez's crimes.
The prosecution focused on Lopez's public statements last year when, under the slogan "The Exit," he and other hardliners pushed for Maduro's resignation just months after pro-government candidates swept regional elections.
Prosecutors say the vitriolic rhetoric encouraged protesters to burn public property and put lives at risk. Officials also accuse him of conspiring with the United States and student demonstrators to try to overthrow the government.
U.S. officials deny that accusation and have made Lopez's release a key demand for normalizing diplomatic relations. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Venezuela's foreign minister Tuesday to express concern about the trial days after meeting with Lopez's wife, Lilian Tintori, in Washington.
Activists presented in the courtroom told The Associated Press that Lopez in his closing remarks looked at the judge and said that if he's freed he'll go home, kiss his children, ask again for his wife's hand in marriage and then start all over again canvassing the country.
While many of Lopez's supporters never doubted he would be convicted, the stiff sentence came as a surprise to those who thought leniency would be shown in a bid to defuse tensions ahead of December's legislative elections, which the opposition is heavily favored to win.
Roberta Jacobson, the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America, said in a tweet she was "deeply troubled" by the verdict and called on Venezuela's government to protect democracy and human rights. Human rights groups condemned the verdict.
But at a rally of government supporters outside the courthouse before the verdict was read, a band played folk songs with lyrics supporting a guilty verdict.
"Hold him responsible," went the chorus to one song. The government did not immediately comment on the verdict.
Lopez's lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling.
Lopez, a father of two young children, has spent the past year and a half in a military prison outside Caracas where he'll now complete the sentence. With only his family allowed to visit, he managed to release several videos from behind bars.
In May, through a recording shot in his cell, Lopez called the largest rally Venezuela has seen since the wave of anti-government protests in 2014 that led to his jailing. In June he staged a 30-day hunger strike to demand the government schedule congressional elections.
Lopez's team accuses Maduro's government of wanting to sentence him now in hopes that any anger will fade before the vote is held Dec. 6.
Polls say Lopez continues to be one of Venezuela's most popular politicians with approval numbers approaching 50 percent, while Maduro's languish below 30 percent.
But the former triathlete is not universally liked by Venezuela's chronically divided opposition. Some leaders consider him too radical and out of touch with the poor masses who still revere Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
Crime, inflation and shortages have only gotten worse since last year's protests, though many people have been hesitant to take to the streets again.
Three co-defendants, all of whom had been freed before the verdict, received punishments of between 4 and 10 years by the judge on Thursday.
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
VALENCIA/CARACAS (Reuters) - When a man they believed to be a thief sneaked into their parking lot in the Venezuelan city of Valencia, angry residents caught him, stripped him and beat him with fists, sticks and stones.
They tied him up and doused him in gasoline, according to witnesses, in one of what rights groups and media reports say are an increasing number of mob beatings and lynchings in a country ravaged by crime.
That August night, as locals say is common, three people had sneaked into Valencia's Kerdell residential block. In past such break-ins, thieves have made off with car tires, batteries and radios.
But this time, one resident spotted the trespassers and alerted other neighbors, according to the witnesses.
"'Kill him, give it to him,' they shouted," recounted Trina Castro, 82, in this once middle-class and peaceful area that is now plagued with garbage and graffiti. One reads: "Get ready, thief, here we burn you. Regards, Kerdell."
"I tried to stop the mob but the level of violence endangered anyone who opposed them," said another witness, asking to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
The unconscious man, who was not torched, was evacuated and is now in the local hospital's trauma ward, according to witnesses and Valencia's police. The police said they had no further details and did not identify the man.
A source at the Interior Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous because the minister is the only person authorized to speak on the record, said it does not usually comment on cases under investigation. Venezuela's state prosecutor's office said it had not issued a statement on the incident.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), a non-governmental organization, estimates there were 40 cases in 2014 of lynchings, usually defined as extrajudicial killings by mobs.
The Observatory does not yet have figures for 2015, but a Reuters tally of media reports shows that in the last month alone there have been over a dozen mob-led beatings or lynchings.
There is no official public data on mob justice in once industry-rich Valencia or across a country that is in economic crisis. President Nicolas Maduro's administration often blames violence on political rivals seeking to sabotage the socialist government. Authorities have also accused foreign media of exaggerating crime in Venezuela.
The OVV and other rights groups say mob justice is rising as a response to perceived helplessness in the face of crime.
"Lynching is a collective catharsis. Everyone is guilty and no one is guilty," said Roberto Briceno of the OVV.
Venezuela has the world's second highest homicide rate, at 53.7 per 100,000 people in 2012, according to the United Nations, and weapons are easily available.
Courts are slow, judges are sometimes on the take and criminals are frequently released right after arrest, according to non-profit groups.
"The police can arrest criminals, but then the courts free them. As long as there's no response from the state, lynchings will increase," said Elisio Guzman, the head of state police in the state of Miranda.
Venezuela, a major oil exporter, is also mired in a deep economic crisis, hurt by currency controls and falling oil prices.
The International Monetary Fund expects a contraction of 7 percent to the economy this year and private economists calculate annual inflation has topped 100 percent. Shortages fuel a lucrative black market for car batteries and food, increasing incentives for theft.
'HIT THEM HARD'
While lynchings used to be primarily in low-income areas and in response to murders or rapes, monitoring groups say, there have been attacks recently in wealthier areas on common thieves.
Last month, two men were chased and badly beaten for stealing a purse in Caracas' affluent Los Palos Grandes neighborhood. Residents shouted "hit them hard" from their windows before police arrived and stopped the thrashing, witnesses said.
"The thieves are always after us. I don't agree with lynchings, but what other options do we have?" said witness Raquel Brito, 54.
A 20 year-old died in a middle-class area of Caracas in August after being punched, shot and burned for suspected robbery, media reported. Reuters could not independently confirm the case.
In Valencia, the Kerdell complex sits a block from a branch of the country's CICPC investigative police. But some residents here, as in much of Venezuela, say they tend to view security forces as overworked and corrupt.
Officers, in turn, frequently complain of poor pay and equipment.
Some Venezuelans are deeply shocked by the mob justice. Others fear violent citizens' response to crime will only breed more violence.
"Now we're all scared that retaliation could be in store," said retired mathematics and physics teacher Maria Perez, 66, who has lived in Kerdell for 30 years but is now thinking of moving out.