Monday, January 4, 2016

Venezuelan politics heat up ahead of National Assembly swearing in tomorrow (Jan. 4, 2016)

Venezuela is headed for a politically fascinating year. National Assembly elections dominated international coverage of the country's news for most of the second half of last year -- interspersed with chronic stories of shortages and crime plaguing the population, and the ongoing issue of jailed opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López.

This year's narrative will likely center on the new, opposition-led parliament, the first time in over a decade that opposition to the Socialist led government has had control of any government institution. Lawmakers will be sworn in tomorrow, but already things are heating up.

Last week a legal challenge by the Socialist Party (PSUV) blocked four newly elected legislators -- three from the opposition -- from taking office. And the Supreme Court will hear challenges agains the election of another six deputies, reports Reuters

The moves are aimed at potentially stripping the opposition of the two-thirds majority it won on Dec. 6, explains Reuters in a separate piece. A Supreme Court statement did not say on what grounds the appeals were based. Winning the appeals could lead to the elections being repeated. 

The opposition called for a demonstration tomorrow in support of incoming legislators and the leader of the opposition MUD coalition Jesus Torrealba has written letters to world leaders, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, warning of an attempted judicial coup, notes the New York Times.

Last week opposition leaders said the banned lawmakers will be present at tomorrows inaugural session, reports the Associated Press.

And the move also ratchets up the stakes in the political face-off between the opposition and the government. This weekend jailed hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo López said it will be necessary to "remove" Maduro from power if he refuses to recognize last month's opposition electoral victory, reports the Buenos Aires Herald.

At the end of last month the outgoing National Assembly approved 13 new Supreme Court judges, a move intended to keep the body packed with government supporters, critics say. (See Dec. 23rd's post.) Experts cited in the Wall Street Journal said Socialist legislators violated constitutional norms by naming party allies as judges and by rushing through the appointment process.
Get ready for chess: At Caracas Chronicles Francisco Toro analyzes some of the options open to the new National Assembly to combat judicial blocking of their new agenda.

On Sunday the opposition majority chose Henry Ramos Allup to head the coalition caucus in the National Assembly -- and by extension hold its presidency. He's known for "embracing confrontation," reports the Associated Press. Ramos will undoubtedly become a lightning rod for Maduro and the PSUV, according to the Miami Herald.

The vote demonstrates the schism within the opposition between moderates who advocate negotiation with President Nicolás Maduro and a focus on economic issues and the hard-liners who favor direct confrontation with the administration.

Though Ramos himself did not participate in street protests against the government, he won the vote with the help of opposition hard-liners, notes the AP. He is secretary general of the Democratic Action party, one that is seen by critics as representing the old guard of Venezuelan politics, reports Reuters.
"We represent an alternative... We are not going to be the anti-establishment, rather an autonomous legislative power," said Ramos, who won the election with 62 of the 111 votes cast.

Ramos united several smaller factions of opposition lawmakers against Julio Borges of the Justice First party. On a national level, the party is led by moderate Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state. At Caracas Chronicles Francisco Toro has an in-depth analysis of the political maneuvering that led to Ramos' surprise victory.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz analyze the opposition schism more in depth. They point to a polemic Capriles interview published last week in which "Capriles hinted that the priority for the new opposition dominated National Assembly should be the 'stabilization of the economy,' instead of pushing for a quick removal of president Maduro from his post via a recall referendum." In the same interview he criticizes the Leopoldo López-led La Salida faction within the opposition.

Still, they note that "the MUD is making every effort to maintain the appearance of unity. When Torrealba announced in a press conference 'the pacific path chosen by Venezuelans to solve this severe political, economic, and social crisis suffered by the country is in danger,' he was flanked by Ramos Allup and Borges."

News Briefs

  • But all the politics doesn't mean the other central narratives about Venezuela are over. NGO Venezuelan Violence Observatory said the country's homicide rate grew last year, reports the Associated Press. The estimated that 27,875 killings occurred this year, pushing the homicide rate up to 90 per 100,000 residents. That makes it a more violent country than Honduras and rivaling El Salvador for the title of the world's deadliest.
  • And Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, has temporarily suspended the exportation of gas to Colombia to cope with the battering to the Venezuelan electronic system wrought by the drought caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon, reports TeleSur. An agreement between the two countries calls for Venezuela to send 39 million cubic feet of gas a day to Colombia, about 3% of Colombia's supply, reports the Associated Press.
  • CounterPunch has an interesting piece on a seed law passed by the outgoing National Assembly, which "bans transgenic (GMO) seed while protecting local seed from privatization." The writers laud the new law, which "was hammered out through a deliberative partnership between members of the country's National Assembly and a broad-based grassroots coalition of eco-socialist, peasant, and agroecological oriented organizations and institutions."
  • And the recession and stringent currency controls in Venezuela have one business booming -- plastic surgery on the cheap -- reports the Wall Street Journal in a colorful piece.
  • A commission charged with reviewing Haiti's controverted October presidential elections concluded that they were indeed fraught with irregularities, but that voting in the delayed run-off election should take place as (re)scheduled in two weeks, reports the Associated Press. The reports notes issues such as poll workers intervening in favor of certain candidates, but says the issues did not likely affect the outcome of the election and that voting should go ahead on January 17. (See Dec. 18th's post.) The report fails to resolve the political crisis engulfing Haiti, explains the Miami Herald, which notes that the presidential mandate ends on Feb. 7. The report does point to major systemic problems with the electoral machine, and in particular notes that the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) "no longer has the credibility to permit it to continue with the process without plunging the country into a more serious crisis." In fact, the report may well deepen the political impasse, as it's findings -- such as the that voters’ signatures or fingerprints were missing from 57 percent of the audited documents from the October elections -- might indicate the impossibility of holding legitimate elections on Jan. 17, notes the Miami Herald. 
  • About 184,000 people, mostly of Haitian descent, were able to secure legal residency in the Dominican Republic under a controversial new immigration policy put in place last year. But an estimated 300,000, which includes many Dominican-born people of Haitian descent didn't meet criteria to gain formal residency or couldn't get the necessary paperwork such as a Haitian birth certificate or documents proving they had been in the Dominican Republic since before October 2011, reports the Associated Press.
  • The U.S. launched a crackdown on Central Americans who have evaded deportation, reports the Wall Street Journal. The operation began in Georgia and Texas this weekend, though it was unclear yesterday how many people had been taken into custody. "If the raids spread across the country, they would mark the first large-scale operation mounted specifically against Central Americans," notes the WSJ.
  • Central American countries reached a deal last week to help thousands of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica continue their journey towards the United States where they hope to establish residency, after Nicaragua closed its border to them in November, reports the Associated Press. (See Nov. 16th's post.) The plan, hammered out in Guatemala, will airlift transfer an unspecified number of Cubans from Costa Rica to El Salvador this week. There they will continue their journey toward Mexico by bus. The agreement, which will help approximately 8,000 stranded migrants was viewed as a positive short-term solution, but has sparked fears of a wave of illegal migration in coming months, reports the Wall Street Journal. Logistics of the deal are complicated and unprecedented. Costa Rica is no longer issuing transit visas for Cubans and will deport the 56 who entered the country after the program was ended a few weeks ago. U.S. immigration policy favors Cuban migrants who receive a fast-track to residency however they manage to make it across the border, and Cuban officials say it is causing a brain-drain on the island. Migration out is increasing, spurred by fears that the detenté between the two countries will end the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. (See Nov. 25th's post.)
  • Twenty-two Cuban migrants landed in the Florida Keys on New Years Day, the first rafters to reach the U.S. in the year, part of a group of 100 who have arrived by that route over the past couple of weeks, reports the Miami Herald
  • The Miami Herald has an interesting piece on a Tampa company's bid to open a warehouse distribution center in Cuba.
  • U.S. President Barak Obama is considering a visit to Cuba if the government there improves its human rights record and opens up more to American businesses, reports the Los Angeles Times. Last month Obama said he'd be interested in a Havana visit if he could meet with political dissidents. (See Dec. 14th's post.)
  • The mayor of the Mexican city of Temixo in Morelos state was killed on Jan. 2, one day after being sworn in. Gisela Mota's killing was attributed to "cartels" by the state governor. She is the latest of hundreds of public servants killed as part of drug related violence, reports the Los Angeles Times, which notes that she promised to help free her town of organized crime. Cartels seeking to control communities and towns have often targeted local officials and mayors in Mexico, reports the Associated Press. The area in particular has been plagued with drug and extortion gangs. Three people, including a minor, were being held yesterday in relation to the case.
  • Honduras' government received an extradition request for former vice president and businessman Jaime Rosenthal, who is accused of money laundering, reports the Associated Press. The request will be forwarded to the national Supreme Court, but is "bad news," according to Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales. (See Oct. 8th's post.)
  • Legal pot in the U.S. seems to be driving down prices for illicit Mexican grown marijuana, to the point where many farmers are abandoning the crop, reports the Los Angeles Times. Free market economics is making inroads where eradication or alternative incentive programs have failed.
  • A great piece by Sarah Maslin in The Economist looks at a 1981 massacre in El Salvador as an example of how the country’s post civil war amnesty agreements – which shielded violations perpetrators on both sides of the conflict and helped make a political settlement possible – are increasingly being questioned. One expert quoted in the piece makes the case that the country’s sky-high murder rate is linked to impunity for war crimes committed during the bloody 12-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and a right-wing government. It's an issue most countries in the region have had to face, with national differences regarding the crimes and how they have been treated judicially. As Colombia reaches a peace agreement with the FARC and brings its own civil war to an end, it's very much still a salient debate. She chronicles the difficulties faced by survivors and families of the victims of the El Mozote massacre in which soldiers gunned down hundreds of unarmed men, women and children as they seek to obtain justice. "Although opinion may be shifting, many Salvadoreans are loth to unpick an amnesty that has served the country well in many ways," notes the Maslin. "The government—and probably still most Salvadoreans—think going after today's murderous gangs should be the priority: 95% of murders are unsolved. To the survivors of El Mozote, both groups of victims are entitled to the same justice."

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