Tens of thousands of protesters in Venezuela marched to back jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, who is demanding that the government release political prisoners and set a date for parliamentary elections slated for this year, reports the Wall Street Journal.
López has been detained for 15 months, on charges of inciting violence during widespread protests last year that left 43 dead. López has been on a hunger strike since last week, along with the former mayor of San Cristobal, Daniel Ceballos, who is also detained on charges relating to last year's protests.
UPI reports 3,000 protesters in Caracas, and notes that López's wife, Lilian Tinori called for a day of fasting in solidarity with the political prisoners' hunger strike. Two other prisoners and a regional deputy have joined in the hunger strike. The WSJ says 11 student protesters are also forming part of the strike.
The government has previously announced that the National Assembly elections, which must be held in 2015, will be after October, but opposition leaders worry they will be cancelled in order to keep the governing party in control of the unicameral parliament, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The country's largest coalition of opposition parties, MUD, distanced itself from Saturday's protest. They say last years protests gave the government an excuse to crackdown on political freedom and prefer to pursue a strictly electoral strategy.
Last week visiting former presidents of Bolivia and Colombia, Jorge Quiroga and Andrés Pastrana, were not permitted to meet with López and Ceballos, according to the BBC. They did however meet with former Caracas mayor, Antonio Ledezma, who is under house arrest.
In the meantime, international pressure on President Nicolás Maduro's administration continues to grow. Last week European Parliament President Martin Schulz said “I wish to make no secret of the fact that we are extremely concerned about Venezuela. Economically and socially, the country is in an increasingly parlous state, and political polarization is increasing by the day,” reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
Maduro said the statement displayed "great contempt" for Venezuela. “Mister Martin Schulz, you and your European Parliament, concern yourselves with the increasing poverty in Europe. Concern yourselves with the thousands of Africans who, because of your colonialism, are arriving hopeful of breathing a little bit of air on Europe’s coasts, and you persecute them and incarcerate them in concentration camps like Nazis did,” he said.
Perhaps Pope Francis' perspective will have more relevance: he's meeting with Maduro next week, according to TeleSur.
On another front, National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello announced yesterday that he will be initiating defamation lawsuits in Spain and the U.S. against media outlets that reported allegations that he is involved in drug trafficking, reports Reuters. Spanish newspaper ABC reported in January that Cabello's former bodyguard had fled to the U.S. with evidence of his involvement in drug smuggling. Cabello has already initiated legal action in Venezuela against three media outlets that republished the allegations. The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that U.S. authorities are investigating Cabello regarding links to the cocaine industry, using information from former drug traffickers and military defectors.
- Thousands of Guatemalans gathered in the capital's central square to protest the government in the wake of several corruption scandals that have shaken faith in President Otto Pérez Molina's administration. Demonstrators demanded Pérez's resignation and prohibition of reelection for lawmakers and mayors in Guatemala's September elections, according toReuters. Though the president hasn't been implicated in any of the corruption charges, high-ranking officials have been accused in two important corruption investigations. The Vice President was recently forced to resign due to potential links to a customs fraud scheme, while the entire board of Guatemala's social security institute were accused in a separate case, reports the AP. Last week authorities raided properties linked to the former VP, Roxana Baldetti.
- Plaza Pública interviewed Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca, an expert in how illegal organizations co-opt state institutions in Latin America. The piece, translated to English by InSight Crime, analyzes how Guatemalan institutions are affected by criminal networks.
- Corruption protests seem to be in fashion in the region. On Friday about 5,000 protesters in Tegucigalpa asked for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to resign after being accused by the opposition of accepting illegal funds from the country's social security institute to finance his presidential campaign, reports the Tico Times.
- Cuba was finally removed on Friday from the U.S. State Department list of countries that sponsor terror. The change eliminates one of the sticking points in negotiations to re-establish diplomatic ties between the two countries. The list now only includes Iraq, Sudan and Syria. The change might free up some economic, political and social contacts between the two countries, but will not affect other restrictions on travel and trade that form part of the economic embargo on Cuba, reports the Wall Street Journal. Opponents of the rapprochement say that Cuba isn't ceding anything in exchange for American gestures, reports the Los Angeles Times.
- But pundit opinion is mixed regarding the economic bonanza that experts have been hailing since December, when the two countries began negotiations to resume diplomatic (and business) relations. Andres Oppenheimer says in his Miami Herald column that despite the hype regarding business opportunities in the wake of the U.S.- Cuba diplomatic thaw, investors should remember that the island is economically poor and backwards. Foreign Policy had a similar piece last week.
- Who were 42 men killed just over a week ago in a shootout with Mexican police, asks aWashington Post article. Though many might have been affiliated with the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, their neighbors in Ocotlan make the case that security forces cause far more trouble in their area than the gang. The gang can provide some measure of protection against corrupt security forces in some areas, argue the locals cited in the piece. While authorities are hailing the three hour gun battle as a victory against the cartel, family members say their relatives were tortured and massacred.
- A campaign questioning the war on drugs approach to narcotics in Brazil has been taken off the back São Paulo buses, following a successful month-long run in Rio de Janeiro. Organizers of the "Da Proibição Nasce o Tráfico" campaign wrote an op-ed in Folha de São Paulo, saying they have not been able to obtain a reasonable explanation for authorities. "We fight for a more just, peaceful, lucid and safe society, thus we fight for a new drug policy. But if we consider irrational a law banning certain plants and substances, what about a government that prohibits free speech? That determines what kind of message its citizens may or may not have access to? What about a government, hostage to their ideology, which kidnaps the debate? And with it, the fundamental principle of democracy: the free flow of ideas. And if we say in the campaign that “Drug Trafficking is born from Prohibition”, São Paulo makes it increasingly clear: prohibition is born from authoritarianism."
- Brazil's GDP shrank in this year's first quarter, albeit by less than initially projected, reports theWall Street Journal. The economy contracted by 0.2 percent, while predictions said the reduction would be of 0,5 percent.
- Three workers died and three more were injured in an accident at the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam construction site in northern Brazil, reports Reuters. The 11,233 megawatt dam, which will be the third largest in the world, has been criticized by opponents as potentially damaging for the Amazon jungle and indigenous groups.
- Mexico suspended the teacher evaluations that were at the center of an education overhaul, in advance of midterm elections that dissident teacher groups threatened to boycott. The reform has faced tough opposition, reports the Wall Street Journal.
- Former FIFA VP Jack Warner -- arrested last week in part of a wide-ranging U.S. Justice Department investigation into corruption -- defended himself on social media citing an article in The Onion, apparently unaware that it's a satirical newspaper, according to the New York Times' "Open Source." Warner, the leader of Trinidad’s Independent and Liberal Party, said the article proved a U.S. conspiracy to get a soccer tournament on American soil. The Miami Heraldreports that Warner is one of the Caribbean's richest and most influential politicians and that he has long been a the target of corruption speculation in Trinidad. The piece includes an overview of the charges included in the investigation.
- The sweeping FIFA investigation has had a surprising side-effect in Latin America: support and respect for U.S. efforts as a global cop. The Wall Street Journal reports that soccer loving fans in the region appreciate the blow to entrenched corruption in the sport. Even Maradona, known for his anti-imperialist stance sang praise: “Today, the FBI told the truth,” the former World Cup champion told Argentine radio.