Monday, April 3, 2017

Venezuelan court returns power to National Assembly (April 3, 2017)

Venezuela's Supreme Court abruptly reversed a ruling that stripped the National Assembly of its powers last week. The about-face came amid mounting domestic and international criticisms that the decision represented a grave rupture in the country's democracy. (See last Friday's post.)

A Supreme Court judge announced that the reversal also applied to a ruling last week that stripped legislators of parliamentary immunity, reports the New York Times

Saturday's announcement came after an appeal from President Nicolás Maduro late Friday, asking the court to review the ruling, reports the Guardian. The rare backing down came after Venezuela's attorney general, party loyalist Luisa Ortega Díaz, added her voice to the general condemnation on Friday. She said that it was her “unavoidable historical duty” as a Venezuelan citizen and the nation’s top judicial authority to denounce what she called the supreme court’s “rupture” of the constitutional order, reports the Guardian separately.

Her response was broadcast live on state television, until it was cut off, reports the Financial Times. (El País has a piece on Ortega's increasing independence in recent years, including her criticisms of the OPL.)

The attorney general's stance represents a break in the ranks of Chavismo, and sheds light on internal divisions within the administration, reports El País. The Wall Street Journal cites a source saying that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino joined calls for Maduro to revise the order on Friday. The cracks could represent a potential opening for eventual dialogue with the opposition, according to FT.

And the reversal also demonstrates that international pressure can have an effect, especially when combined with domestic resistance, writes Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

National Assembly President Julio Borges insisted the political opposition take to the streets to support its demand for change, as opposed to engaging in further dialogue with the government, reports El País. He aims to force the government into calling early general elections. The dispute has galvanized an opposition that has been demoralized for months, reports the Wall Street Journal.

A rally Saturday gathered about 1,000 people, though calm was restored on Sunday. Nonetheless, the political storm has weakened Maduro, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. Maduro has postponed an urgently needed currency overhaul and will likely delay new oil deals aimed at raising cash.

“Venezuelans to the streets, nothing has changed. There is neither respect for the national assembly nor for the Venezuelan people who wants to vote and overcome the crisis," Borges said according to the Financial Times, saying the abrupt retraction of the Supreme Court decision amounted to a confirmation that there is no separation of powers in Venezuela.

In fact, far from reassuring observers, the court's about-face, as a result of presidential urging, makes the lack of separation of powers more clear than ever say experts cited in the Wall Street Journal. But the outcry shows 

And while this was an abrupt break, it's just part of a long slide towards authoritarianism, reports the New York Times, citing an increase in 25 political prisoners over the past year. At least 114 political prisoners are behind bars in Venezuela, according to Penal Forum.

What remained unclear over the weekend is how far the Supreme Court would go in restoring legislative powers, notes the NYT. It has invalidated several of the National Assembly's decisions over the past year because of the contempt of court issue, leaving open the possibility that this is merely a return to the previous stalemate. 

One analysis at Prodavinci suggests that the reversal merely further muddies the waters. Yesterday one constitutionalist warned that the reversals did not fully roll-back intervention in the legislature, and that the constitutional order remains interrupted, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Mercosur's four founding countries -- Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay -- voted to apply the trade bloc's "democratic clause" and called on Venezuela to respect division of power between branches of government, reports El País. This decision, announced Saturday, holds, despite the roll back of the Supreme Court's original ruling over the weekend.

The OAS  Permanent Council is scheduled to meet later today to discuss Venezuela.

In the meantime, the Venezuela crisis has pushed Mexico out of its traditional aversion to regional politics. In recent weeks Mexico has participated strongly in diplomatic efforts to urge Maduro's government towards more democratic practices. In part, the move is intended to demonstrate to the U.S. Mexico's utility as an ally in the region, say some analysts. Others, point to greater incentive for regional engagement in light of Trump's threat to NAFTA, reports the Financial Times.

And Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights analyzes the strong diplomatic reactions from the region that contributed to pressure on the Maduro administration last week. "These responses seemed to catch the government by surprise, and may have emboldened critics within the Venezuelan government to speak out as well."

News Briefs
  • Lenín Moreno, of Ecuador's ruling leftist Alianza País, appeared headed for a victory in run-off elections held yesterday, reports the New York Times. As of this morning, the national electoral council said Moreno had 51.12 percent and his opponent 48.88, with 97 percent of votes tallied, reports El Comercio. Moreno announced victory last night. But opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso promised to contest the narrow results, potentially setting the stage for political tension in upcoming days, reports the Guardian. Lasso has called on supporters to take to the streets and promised to impugn the results, reports El Universo. If the results hold it will be a rare win for the left in a region that has turned right-ward in most recent elections, notes the NYT.
  • Angry protesters stormed Paraguay's Congress on Friday and set fire to part of the building. They were angered by a Senate vote that day to amend the Constitution and allow President Horacio Cartes to run for reelection, reports the New York Times. Leaders of the lower house, which was scheduled to vote over the weekend postponed the measure, and the popular reaction has raised fears of political instability. One young protester was killed by police in the ensuing confrontations in the capital, reports El País. Cartes fired the interior minister and police head in response to the death, reports the Wall Street Journal. He called for calm and said business and media interests instigated the protests, reports the Guardian. Cartes' administration attempted a similar reelection maneuver last year, but was rebuffed by lawmakers in a country that had the region's longest running dictatorship. This effort at reform, curiously, involves an alliance with former President Fernando Lugo's political front. Lugo, who was ousted by Congress in 2012 -- a move considered a democratic rupture by many in the region -- would also be permitted to run for president in 2018 if the reform passes. Amid the upheaval Latin American countries (including Mexico, see post above on how this is a departure for its foreign policy) urged Paraguay to uphold its constitution, according to the WSJ.
  • At least 234 people were killed by a landslide in Colombia's south-west on Saturday. About 200 more are believed to be injured and 600 people were evacuated, reports the New York Times. More than 1,100 security forces deployed to find survivors after heavy rainstorms in Putomayo this weekend, reports the Financial Times. The city of Mocoa is cut off and lacks drinking water, say residents. And restoring services to the area could take weeks, reports the Guardian. It's the worst natural disaster to hit the country in decades, and President Juan Manuel Santos has already visited the area twice over the weekend, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Despite millions of dollars in international aid aimed at strengthening Haitian rule of law, "experts say it remains difficult to file criminal charges against people in power or their associates," according to a New York Times piece focused on the case of a mayor charged with orchestrating murder and attacks on critics in 2008 in a human rights case filed in Boston.
  • Attempts to loosen gun regulations in Brazil, led by the country's so-called "Bullet Caucus," could worsen a homicide epidemic that already kills about 60,000 citizens per year with firearms, argue Robert Muggah and Daniel Cerqueira in USA Today. The laxer regulations lawmakers are pushing would be good for the country's gun industry, but rely on false arguments about the deterrent effect of firearms in private hands, they write. "The science of gun legislation matters fundamentally. It shows overwhelmingly that responsible gun legislation prevents violent deaths and other forms of victimization. And for its parts, Brazil's disarmament statute is credited with reducing homicides by 12% between 2004 and 2007. Had the statute not been implemented, at least 135,000 more Brazilians would have been murdered since 2004."
  • A draft letter circulating in the U.S. Congress suggests that the Trump administration could seek to keep much of NAFTA in place in upcoming renegotiation talks with Mexico, reports the New York Times. But it might be too soon to celebrate for Mexicans concerned about Trump's threats to close off free trade warn experts who point to the bureaucratic nature of the letter -- and apparent White House statements distancing the administration from those moderate views are keeping observers on their toes.
  • Corn will be a vital negotiating tool for Mexico in the negotiations -- it's the top U.S. agricultural export to the country, and Mexico has begun exploring importing from Argentina, Brazil or even increasing domestic production, reports the New York Times.
  • Norte -- a Ciudad Juárez newspaper in print for 27 years -- announced its closing, a week after a collaborator was gunned down, reports El País. Norte's owner said his decision to shutdown was based on lack of security for journalists and impunity that prevented them from doing their work. "Everything in life has a beginning, an end, and a price to pay. And if this is life, I am not willing for any more of my collaborators, nor myself, to pay it," wrote Oscar A. Cantú Murguía. He also made reference to financial concerns. Government advertising is an importance source of revenue for many news outlets in Mexico, and critics say it leads to self-censorship, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is being held in unusually harsh conditions in U.S. jail, according to Amnesty International. The group voiced concern that he is kept to his New York City cell for 23 hours a day, with the lights on at all times, reports the Guardian.
  • A Mexico City subway seat was altered to look like a male torso -- including a penis -- in a provocative campaign by the city government and U.N. Women to draw attention to sexual harassment, reports the New York Times.
  • Popular support in Argentina is often measured by street presence in demonstrations -- thus the phrase "losing the street." A series of marches and protests against the Mauricio Macri's government this month was countered on Saturday by a well-attended (well-heeled) manifestation "for democracy," on Saturday, reports El País. Though the government officially distanced itself from the "self-convoked" march, it serves as a counter to the upcoming general strike planned for Thursday.

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