Thursday, November 12, 2015

U.S. arrests Maduro's relatives on drug charges, OAS criticizes electoral process (Nov. 12, 2015)

Two nephews of the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti this week and flown to the U.S. to face drug charges, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas were arrested in Port-au-Prince at the request of U.S. authorities. The two men were charged in a sealed indictment accusing them of conspiring to ship 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United States, to be sold in New York, reports the New York Times.

The arrests come amid U.S. government officials' accusations that top Venezuelan officials are involved in drug trafficking. (See May 19th's post.) U.S. officials say Venezuela is a transit hub for nearly half the Columbian cocaine production. Venezuelan officials deny all of the allegations regarding their involvement in the drug trade and characterize as efforts to destabilize the leftist government.

The move is already heightening tensions between the two countries. The timing, just before landmark legislative elections take place in less than a month, is critical for the Venezuelan government.

Flores, who is referred as the "First Combatant" by her husband, is highly influential in the Venezuelan government, according to Reuters. She was on the legal team of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, working to secure his 1994 release from prison after a failed coup attempt. And in 2006, she became the first woman elected to lead the legislature, taking over that role from Maduro, and is registered as a candidate in the Dec. 6 legislative elections.

Today Maduro condemned what he called imperialist attacks and ambushes on his nephews, reports Reuters. He's scheduled to speak before the U.N. human rights body in Geneva today, a move criticized by human rights organizations who denounce what they say is the government's poor record on the issue.
"Venezuela should not be allowed to use the council as a vehicle for self-promotion," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch.

In the meantime, a group of Venezuelan opposition figures has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe Maduro, and other officials for "crimes against humanity," reports AFP.

The WSJ piece goes into depth on U.S. accusations against Venezuelan officials (all of while the officials in question deny) and the dire situation in Venezuela now.

On the subject of the upcoming elections:

On Tuesday the Organization of American States' Secretary General Luis Almagro sent a harshly-worded letter to Venezuela's electoral board saying it is not ensuring fair elections, reports Reuters.

Almagro's 19-page letter urges authorities to level the playing field between the Socialist Party and opposition. "There are reasons to believe that the conditions in which people will vote ... aren't right now as transparent and just as the (electoral council) ought to guarantee," he wrote. He mentions unfair electoral advantages in the governing party's use of public resources in the campaign, access to the press, confusion in voting cards and the disqualification of some opposition political figures.

He also mentions the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo López for inciting violence -- a case that has been called a sham trial by human rights groups and which is now denounced as fraudulent by one of the lead prosecutors who defected to the U.S. (See Oct. 27th's briefs.)

The electoral council rejected an offer for the OAS to monitor elections. Observation missions haven't been permitted since 2006, based on a sovereignty argument, though the opposition says it is a ploy to reduce electoral transparency. (See Oct. 21st's post.)

Yesterday the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, retorted saying that the U.S.-backed body "threatens the people of Venezuela," reports TeleSur. The government also says the opposition will not recognize election results, seeking international aid to "damage" Venezuela and inciting violence, reports Reuters.

The Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer celebrates the move, saying Almagro is separating himself from the previous OAS Secretary General José Manuel Insulza, who avoided formal condemnation of Venezuela. 

Over 157 legislators from from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and the United States sent a letter to Maduro urging him to permit international observation of the elections and calling for the release of jailed opposition leaders, reports the BBC.

Unfair playing field aside, Michael McCarthy, writing on the Aula Blog says it's increasingly likely the opposition will win --  government’s approval rating decreased from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in September, according to the national Venebarómetro poll -- but there is no guarantee the government will respect the results. At this stage, observers say that blocking the opposition coalition MUD from obtaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly would count as success for the ruling PSUV, he writes.

"Maduro has said he’ll accept the results “whatever they are,” but he has also said “we have to win, by whatever means possible” (como sea and cualquier manera), and that if the opposition wins “I will not hand over the revolution” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.”  In the next couple weeks, the government may still try to throw the opposition off course, but the MUD does not seem interested in renewing street protests – more violence is unlikely to advance its objectives. Neither do its leaders seem confident that a renewal of talks on rebuilding democratic institutions will help."

News Briefs

  • Thousands of Haitians, led by opposition parties, demonstrated in Port-au-Prince yesterday, accusing the  President Michel Martelly orchestrating an "electoral coup d'etat," reports AFP. Earlier this week seven opposition candidates called for an investigation of preliminary election results that determined Jovenel Moise, backed by Martelly, drew 32 percent of the ballots on October 25. Moise will face off against Jude Celestin, in a December 27 run-off election. 
  • Violence in Mexico is a headline constant. But what is less analyzed is the fact that most of the perpetrators and victims of crimes are youths. A 2012 Government and World Bank report found that about 38 percent of murder victims in Mexico are between the ages of 15 and 29, and the same group makes up half of the perpetrators of crime. Half of the young people murdered between 2004 and 2013 were between 15 and 17 years old. A piece in VICE focuses on the issue of youths and violence in Mexico. The piece covers the work of Mexican NGO Cause composed of active and former gang members who work to support vulnerable young people at risk of being drawn into organized crime. 
  • Ayotzinapa has become synonymous with forced disappearances in Mexico, specifically that of the 43 teachers college students who disappeared last year and whose case still has not been satisfactorily explained. An op-ed in The Guardian explains that the college itself is one of 17 around the country, the remnants of an ambitious educational project set up in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution, with the goal of providing young men of marginalized rural backgrounds with specialized education. Conservative governments since then have seen them as a source of trouble and targeted them, writes Josefina Salomón. She highlights the courage of the schools remaining students, who go despite the fear over what happened to their classmates and the progressively diminishing resources afforded to them.
  • After public outcry in Mexico, the governing PRI party promised to abstain from using "neuromarketing" techniques to tailor campaign messages. The New York Times reports that the announcement is a reaction to public anger after a piece last week reported on how the party used employed tools to measure voters' brain waves, skin arousal, heart rates and facial expressions during the 2012 presidential campaign. (See Nov. 3rd's briefs.)
  • In Mexico City, a group of women leaders invited by The Guardian to debate women's issues in the city said that tackling gender-based violence and unsafe public spaces should be the city's main priorities.
  • The Brazilian government is threatening to fine mining giants BHP Billiton Ltd and Vale SA for the "environmental catastrophe" caused by ruptured dams at an iron ore mine jointly owned by the companies in Minas Gerais. President Dilma Rousseff flew over the area yesterday, and vowed to demand compensation for the 500 families who were displaced as a result of the accident, according to Reuters. It will seek for the owners to pay for the cleanup costs of contaminated mud that is flowing through two states as a result of the accident, reports Reuters. Six days after the flood, the companies' chief executives held a news conference yesterday in Brazil, saying their current priority is to save lives and offer solidarity to victims, after which the causes of the accident will be fully investigated, reports the Wall Street Journal. Brazilian prosecutors say negligence likely played a role. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Workers protesting layoffs were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets yesterday in the southeastern Brazilian city of Cubatao, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Unions organized the demonstration against a plan to temporarily shut-down a steel mill, which would leave 4,000 workers idle.
  • Rio de Janeiro's property market is in a slump, despite the upcoming Olympic Games to be hosted there, as the oversupply of properties built for the Olympics combines with a national recession and low oil prices, reports the New York Times.
  • At least five participants in a weekly demonstrating demanding free and fair elections for Nicaragua next year were injured yesterday when youths attacked the protest, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Guatemala raised the legal age of marriage to 18, but in a country where a third of women are already married by that age, it will be difficult to enforce the new law according to women's rights campaigners. The law raises the age from 14 for girls and 16 for boys, though it makes allowances for girls to marry at 16 with a judges permission, reports Reuters. Unicef says 7 percent of Guatemalan girls are married by the age of 15, and 30 percent by 18.

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