Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Socialists in Permanent Denial

from the Miami Herald
CARACAS, Venezuela

Venezuela's chief prosecutor on Tuesday denounced a wave of unrest that has killed 26 people, vowing to hold all those responsible accountable and calling on both sides of a heated political spectrum to "lower the tone of confrontation."

"The death of a person hurts very much," Luisa Ortega Diaz said. "Whether they are with the government or the opposition."

More than 400 people have been injured and nearly 1,300 detained in clashes since last month's Supreme Court ruling that stripped congress of its last powers. In an unusual move, Ortega Diaz broke with the government in the immediate days after the decision to denounce it as a "rupture" of the constitutional order. The ruling was later partially reversed amid a storm of international criticism.

On Tuesday, Ortega Diaz took pains not to single out the opposition or the government as bearing the bulk of responsibility for the violence.

"I want to express my firmest rejection to violence as an arm of political action," she said. "Politics should not lead us to war."

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets over the last month to protest against socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who they blame for triple-digit inflation, hours-long lines to get food, shortages of medical supplies and a rise in crime. Protesters have clashed with security forces, which have used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, and overnight looting has destroyed dozens of businesses.

Opposition leaders have blamed armed pro-government militias known as "colectivos" for a number of the deaths, while government officials have accused the opposition of working with criminal gangs to foment unrest.

"Right-wing terrorists have once again left Venezuelan families grieving in their continuous spiral of violence," Nestor Reverol, Venezuela's interior minister, said in a nationwide broadcast announcing the latest deaths.

A group of lawmakers from the opposition-controlled National Assembly gathered outside the chief prosecutor's office before she spoke Tuesday to announce they would cooperate with any investigation and decry what they called the "criminalization" of peaceful protests.

"They talk of bullets," lawmaker Tomas Guanipa said of the government. "We talk of votes."

Opposition lawmakers are also ramping up pressure on Venezuelan ombudsman Tarek William Saab, announcing on Tuesday that they would be giving him three days to take action on their demand that the Supreme Court magistrates responsible for the retracted decision on congress be removed from office.

At Tuesday's legislative session, several lawmakers put up signs denouncing Saab as the "defender of the dictator."

Saab already had publicly dismissed the possibility of trying the judges, and he reiterated that stance in a series of Tweets on Tuesday evening.

In announcing a tally of the violence, Diaz Ortega recounted two cases in which teenagers were allegedly killed by officers and another involving a 23-year-old woman whose death was initially blamed on a group of pro-government armed civilians roaming the area. She said an extensive ballistics investigation revealed Paola Ramirez was actually killed by a man who fired his gun from a building nearby.

"We are working to punish those responsible so there is no impunity," she said.

Of the 1,289 people detained, Diaz Ortega said there were cases in which police officers did not provide sufficient information to prosecute and that in those cases her office has requested those accused by freed. Without citing the opposition, she denounced claims that those detained have not received medical attention.

Diaz Ortega's call for civility comes as government officials are urging Venezuelans to show up en masse for a May Day workers' rally and opposition leaders are calling for continued street protests.

On Monday, thousands of opposition demonstrators blocked the main highway in Caracas, turning the roadway into a public plaza as part of nationwide sit-ins demanding new elections. The Caracas gathering was largely peaceful, but Diaz Ortega said there had been four deaths around the country.

The swell of protests is the most intense in the economically struggling country since two months of anti-government demonstrations in 2014 that resulted in dozens of deaths. Maduro is calling for renewed dialogue, but opposition leaders have discarded that as an option after earlier talks collapsed in December.

International pressure on Venezuela to schedule delayed elections and free political activists currently in detention has been steadily mounting. The Organization of American States scheduled a special meeting of its permanent council Wednesday to discuss whether to call a meeting of the region's foreign ministers on the situation in Venezuela.

A few hours after the OAS announcement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told state TV that she has been instructed by Maduro to initiate Venezuela's withdrawal from the regional group if a foreign ministers meeting is called without his government's backing.

Addressing supporters and singing revolutionary ballads earlier in the day, Maduro showed no intent to tone down his combative rhetoric, saying he was willing to do whatever it took, "even give my life," to pursue socialist policies that he said are meant to help and protect the nation's working class.

"There is only one destiny for Venezuela," he said. "The victory of the revolution."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Libre

Hasta Quando, Comandante?

from the NY Times
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has sought in recent days to cow crowds of protesters with barrages of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters tossed by ground forces and from helicopters. The government has deployed violence-prone plainclothes militias to discourage more demonstrators from pouring onto the streets. It has ratcheted up pressure on opponents by disqualifying a prominent leader from running for office and by detaining other critics. It has moved to censor the press by blocking access to digital news outlets, by barring foreign journalists from entering the country and by assaulting Venezuelan reporters.

Even as the latest wave of street protests has turned fatal, with at least five deaths reported in recent days, Venezuelans show no sign of letting up the pressure on Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian government. In a striking sign of dissent, demonstrators on Tuesday pelted Mr. Maduro with eggs and stones while he rode in a jeep in a military parade in the eastern state of Bolívar, where his party has traditionally enjoyed strong support. A coalition of opposition factions is calling for a huge march next Wednesday.

Big protests are among the few means the opposition has to stand up for democratic principles and decry the government’s epic economic mismanagement and cronyism. Mr. Maduro has co-opted the judiciary and rendered the legislature — which is controlled by a coalition of opposition parties — largely ineffective by disregarding its authority.

This latest unrest is likely to deepen the misery of Venezuelans, who are suffering from severe food shortages, without leading to a positive breakthrough. Mr. Maduro’s government, after all, has had considerable success in weathering past periods of agitation.

This one could be different, however, if Venezuela’s fractious opposition groups agree on a list of concrete objectives and lay out a clear strategy to start addressing the country’s problems with help from the international community. Attempts to build such a consensus on issues like the release of political prisoners, a time frame for elections that have been indefinitely postponed and the distribution of humanitarian aid have failed in the past. But getting concessions from Mr. Maduro may be feasible now that a growing number of regional governments are taking a harder line against the Venezuelan government.

Over the past couple of days, Mr. Maduro and his allies were characteristically tone deaf about the strife. They marked the fourth anniversary of his election by publishing new slogans on social media. One celebrated “four years of victory and loyalty.” Another one called the president “indestructible.” That is a strikingly callous adjective for a leader who has done so much harm.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Quanto Sangre? Is this the end?

from Yahoo
Venezuela's government fired tear gas and rubber bullets at some of the thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who poured into the streets of Caracas Saturday amid a weeklong protest movement that shows little sign of losing steam.

The demonstrations in the capital and several other cities came a day after Maduro's government barred top opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for office for 15 years.

The ban capped a tumultuous 10 day-crackdown that saw pro-government groups rough up several opposition leaders and another seek refuge in a foreign embassy to escape arrest.

The protests were triggered by the Supreme Court's decision to gut the opposition-controlled legislature of its last vestiges of power, a move that was later reversed amid widespread international condemnation and even dissent within Maduro's normally disciplined socialist leadership.

"Nobody can disqualify the Venezuelan people," an emotional Capriles said from a stage Saturday as he called on protesters to march to the ombudsman's office downtown.

As the sea of protesters approached the headquarters of state-run PDVSA oil company, they were met by rubber bullets and a curtain of eye-scorching tear gas, some of it a never-before-seen red color. Mayhem ensued, with riot police racing down windy streets, dodging objects thrown from tall apartment buildings as they deployed to squash the unrest.

Later, a small group of youths unsuccessfully tried to set fire to a Supreme Court office building.

The violence was condemned by the opposition leadership, who nonetheless blame Maduro's obstinacy for fueling the unrest.

They called for another protest Monday. But with Caracas shutting down for the Easter holiday — which Maduro extended by decree for three extra days — they appeared to be saving their strength for a major demonstration called for April 19.

At least 17 people were treated for injuries, according to Ramon Muchacho, a Caracas-area mayor where the demonstration took place.

Around most of Caracas, checkpoints were set up to search cars and frisk bus passengers even miles away from the clashes. As night fell, many streets still reeked of tear gas and a small group of youth burned trash and tore down street signs at busy intersections in eastern Caracas.

As the most dominant figure in the opposition over the past decade, Capriles has been at the forefront of the protests, the most combative since a wave of anti-government unrest in 2014 in which dozens of people were killed, many at the hands of security forces.

The almost-daily churn of events in what the opposition calls an "ongoing coup" by the government has energized and united the normally fractious opposition.

While opposition leaders have insisted on peaceful protest, frustration built up over 17 years of polarizing socialist rule in Venezuela is running high on both sides.

As Saturday's march began, protesters snatched a camera from crew members working for pro-government state broadcaster VTV, chasing them away from the crowd with kicks and insults. Police, meanwhile, made social media posts of mugshots of protesters taken undercover and asked for information on the unidentified "generators of violence."

Leaders in the ruling socialist party have accused the opposition of trying to provoke a bloodbath and its own coup.

The protesters on Saturday included 26-year-old Victoria Paez, who sported a baseball cap bearing the slogan "There's a Way!" from Capriles' 2012 presidential run against the late Hugo Chavez.

"Every day, the government gives us more reasons to leave our homes and protest," said Paez, who earns less than $20 a month as a chemical engineer. She said she's thinking about joining a sister and scores of college friends who have left the South American country seeking a better future.

While she said she was hopeful the world is beginning to see there are injustices in Venezuela, her father, Carlos Paez, was more pessimistic.

"Unfortunately, if there has to be bloodshed for the government to change, it won't be the first time in history," he said.

The protest movement's immediate goal apparently is to force Maduro to call elections. Authorities last year cancelled an opposition campaign to hold a recall referendum on Maduro and no date has yet been set for gubernatorial elections that were supposed to take place last year.

The government earlier jailed another major opposition figure, hardliner Leopoldo Lopez. With both seemingly out of the running, the government may be trying to manipulate the electoral playing field to leave the opposition with less viable options should the government bow to pressure and call elections before they're scheduled in 2018, analysts said.

"However, it is a risky strategy that will probably backfire," Eurasia Group said in a report Friday. "The opposition is clearly fired up and this will further their cause."

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Venezuela's Supreme Court "takes it back"

from Reuters
Venezuela's pro-government Supreme Court revoked its takeover of the opposition-led Congress on Saturday after it drew international condemnation and protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

"This controversy is over," Maduro said just after midnight at a specially convened state security committee.

The committee ordered the top court to reconsider Wednesday's court ruling, which effectively nullified the legislature and brought accusations the ruling Socialist Party was creating a dictatorship.

The tribunal duly erased two controversial judgments and its president, Maikel Moreno, met with both foreign envoys and journalists to explain the decision, insisting there had never been any intention to strip the National Assembly of its powers.

Maduro, 54, who had faced dissent even within government ranks over the Supreme Court's move, sought to cast developments as the achievement of a statesman resolving a power conflict beneath him. But foes said it was a hypocritical row-back by an unpopular government that overplayed its hand in a power grab.

"You can't pretend to just normalize the nation after carrying out a 'coup,'" said Julio Borges, leader of the legislature.

Borges publicly tore up the court rulings this week and refused to attend the overnight security committee, whose members include the heads of major institutions.

He led an open-air meeting of the National Assembly in a Caracas square on Saturday.

Having already shot down most congressional measures since the opposition won control in 2015, the Supreme Court went further with its Wednesday decision. It said it was taking over the legislature's role because it was in "contempt" of the law.

TEAR GAS AND PEPPER SPRAY

Although scores of dissidents have been detained during Maduro's four-year rule and the National Assembly stripped of power anyway in practice, the court's move was arguably the most explicitly anti-democratic measure.

It galvanized Venezuela's demoralized and divided opposition coalition and sparked international condemnation and concern from the United Nations and European Union, as well as the United States and many neighboring countries.

The Supreme Court's flip-flop may take the edge off protests but Maduro's opponents at home and abroad will seek to maintain the pressure. They are furious that authorities thwarted a push for a referendum to recall Maduro last year and postponed local elections scheduled for 2016.

Now they are calling for next year's presidential election to be brought forward and the delayed local polls to be held, confident the ruling Socialist Party would lose.

Hundreds of opposition supporters marched in Caracas on Saturday. Police dispersed some with tear gas as residents banged pots and pans to support the demonstrators.

One opposition lawmaker said he was attacked three times by police using pepper spray. "Their violence does not stop us," said Miguel Pizarro, of the Justice First party.

In western San Cristobal, a hotbed of opposition support, about 80 people also marched with whistles and banners reading "Down with the dictatorship!"

"The Supreme Court is controlled by idiots. What they did is a crime, there was no justification, and now Nicolas Maduro backs off like a child," said pensioner Libia Zambrano, 77.

Also on Saturday, South America's MERCOSUR bloc met in Argentina with most of its members unhappy at Venezuela.

The hemispheric Organization of American States had a special session scheduled for Monday in Washington.

MADURO DECRIES "LYNCHING"

Maduro accuses the United States of orchestrating a campaign to oust him and said he had been subject this week to a "political, media and diplomatic lynching."

Some criticism even came from within government, with Attorney General Luisa Ortega rebuking the court in an extremely rare show of dissent from a senior official.

"It constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order," she said in a speech on state television on Friday.

Given past failures of opposition street protests, it is unlikely there will be mass support for a new wave.

Rather, opposition activists have said they hope ramped-up foreign pressure or a nudge from the powerful military may force Maduro's hand into bringing forward a presidential vote.

"Venezuela's grave situation remains the same," opposition leader Henrique Capriles said, calling on the government to free jailed activists, allow humanitarian aid into Venezuela, call elections and restore autonomy to congress.

Maduro, a former bus driver, foreign minister and self-declared "son" of late president and populist firebrand Hugo Chavez, was narrowly elected president in 2013. His ratings have plummeted as Venezuelans struggle with an unprecedented economic crisis, including food and medicine shortages and the world's highest inflation.

Critics blame a failing socialist system, whereas the government says its enemies are waging an "economic war." The fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has exacerbated the crisis.

The Supreme Court's move this week may have been partly motivated by financial conditions. The wording about taking over Assembly functions came in a ruling allowing Maduro to create joint oil ventures without congress' approval.

The OPEC nation urgently needs to raise money from oil partners to pay $3 billion in bond maturities due this month, analysts and sources say.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Venezuela's New Normal - Judicial and Executive Tyranny

from the NY Times
A ruling this week by Venezuela’s Supreme Court stripping the nation’s legislative branch of all authority — and vesting that power in the court itself — moves a country already beset by violence and economic scarcity one step closer to outright dictatorship.

The decision means essentially that every arm of Venezuela’s government is now under the thumb of President Nicolás Maduro, whose supporters have gone to great lengths to wrest authority from the National Assembly, which has been dominated by a slate of opposition parties since early 2016. The country’s top court, which is packed with Maduro loyalists, had already invalidated every major law passed by Congress. On Wednesday, as part of a decision involving the executive branch’s authority over oil ventures, the court declared that henceforth the judicial branch would execute all powers normally reserved for the legislature.

The ruling provoked international condemnation and sent shock waves across the region. It also prompted a strikingly public rebuke from Luisa Ortega, a Maduro loyalist who serves as the nation’s chief prosecutor. She denounced the decision in a televised address during which she brandished a copy of Venezuela’s Constitution.

The court’s ruling represents a “rupture in the constitutional order,” Ms. Ortega said, speaking at the Public Ministry, which she leads. “We call for reflection so that democratic norms are followed,” she added, eliciting hearty applause from colleagues who appeared stunned by the gravity of the moment.

Other voices like hers should be heard, and soon. Venezuelan officials who have enabled Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian rule need to stand up for democratic principles, including the separation of powers and respect for the will of the electorate.

It is necessary, too, for Venezuela’s neighbors to speak out more emphatically. Mr. Maduro finds himself increasingly isolated diplomatically as traditional regional allies have turned on him. A coalition of all the major powers in the hemisphere has begun exploring potential responses to Venezuela’s economic and political crisis. Those efforts must advance with a renewed sense of urgency.

Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, characterized Wednesday’s court decision in a statement as a “self-inflicted coup d’état” against the “last branch of government to be legitimized by the will of the people of Venezuela.”

To signal his alarm, Mr. Almagro has called for an urgent meeting of O.A.S. members by invoking the Democratic Charter, a pact that members of the diplomatic organization signed in 2001 to pledge adherence to democratic principles and practices. It now seems plausible that the meeting could be the first step toward expelling Venezuela from the organization.

This prospect should be sufficient to alert Mr. Maduro and his acolytes in the judiciary to the foolishness of their autocratic behavior and persuade them to promptly restore the Assembly’s authority.

In addition, the government must establish a time frame in which to hold local elections that were supposed to be held last year and future ones that have not yet been scheduled. “The Venezuelan people want to resolve the political crisis by voting,” Henrique Capriles, a prominent opposition leader, told reporters in Washington on Friday after meeting with Mr. Almagro. “We want elections. We’ll never be able to talk about democracy if there is no vote.”

Failure to take meaningful action toward compromise will only deepen the misery of Venezuelans, fuel an even larger exodus of people leaving the country and raise the likelihood that what is now a senseless political dispute will end in violence.