Monday, July 17, 2017

7 million Venezuelans reject constitutional rewrite plan (July 17, 2017)

Over 7 million Venezuelans symbolically rejected a government plan to rewrite the country's constitution yesterday, reports the Associated Press. Though voting was mostly peaceful, a 61-year-old woman was killed and four people wounded by gunfire in western Caracas. (See Friday's briefs.)

The final tally was 6.492.381 voters in Venezuela and 693.789 in voting stations set in other countries for expatriates, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The numbers represent about a third of the country's eligible voters, according to the Wall Street Journal. The vote was unofficial, but over 98 percent of participants rejected the plan to elect a constituent assembly, reports the Los Angeles Times. The government dismissed the exercise as unconstitutional, reports Reuters.

Efecto Cocuyo characterizes it as Venezuela's most massive act of pacific civil disobedience. It wasn't a formal electoral act, rather "an act of rebellion whose repercussions have yet to be seen."

Organizers are hoping the large turnout and nearly unanimous result could widen rifts within the government and increase pressure on the international community to isolate the Maduro administration, reports the New York Times. The government is expected to ignore the results.

The government has convened a July 30 election to elect members of a constituent assembly, which it calls a necessary reform to exit the current political polarization and stalemate. But the opposition has called for a boycott of the plan and argues its a power play to maintain the government in power indefinitely. The assembly's 545 members would have the power to dissolve state institutions, including the opposition dominated National Assembly, notes the BBC.

There was a high potential for violence yesterday, as the government held a dry run of the July 30 election. In some cases in Caracas voters from the two camps lined up on different sides of the same street to enter different polling booths, notes the Financial Times.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde emphasizes the importance that the electoral commission did not declare the plebiscite illegal, and that Maduro called for both events to be held in peace. "This has clearly generated a sense among voters that it is safe to go and wait in line in public space."

Organizers burnt voter tallies yesterday, to keep participants from potential government retaliation. Though the government said it was to disguise fraud. Maduro recognized the exercise yesterday, but framed it as an internal consultation of the opposition.

Opposition leaders say turnout would have been higher if they had been able to set up more polling places. There were less than a third of the number of electoral tables as in a normal election, notes Smilde. Though an impressive statement of support for the opposition agenda, the votes fall short of the opposition’s 7.7 million-vote showing in 2015 legislative elections and the 7.5 million votes that brought President Nicolás Maduro to power in 2013, notes the AP.

"Whatever the actual numbers say, the optics of a large turnout, especially in longtime Chavista areas in the Western part of Caracas will perhaps be more important," wrote Smilde.

Though the results do not indicate an immediate change in government, nor a solution to the current political stalemate, they could reinvigorate the opposition movement after three months of ongoing protests, according to Reuters. 

Now opposition leaders are debating how to leverage the show of popular support. They are promising "Zero Hour" in Venezuela to demand a general election and stop Constituent Assembly election, reports Reuters. Tactics could include massive marches, sit-ins and a general strike.

And the vote could embolden the international community to reject the government plan to elect a constituent assembly later this month, Smilde told the AP. 

A group of former Latin American presidents travelled to Venezuela this weekend in support of the referendum. The group, including former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, called on regional leaders to recognize the informal plebiscite's results as legitimate, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Yesterday Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada said on Twitter that he was declaring former Mexican President Vicente Fox -- who also travelled to Venezuela --  persona non grata and banning him from the country for conspiring to promote violence and foreign intervention.

Restoring peace in Venezuela will require a diplomatic hardline with Cuba, which "is the author of the barbarism," according to Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady. "The referendum was an act of national bravery. Yet like the rest of the opposition’s strategy—which aims at dislodging the dictatorship with peaceful acts of civil disobedience—it’s not likely to work. That’s because Cubans, not Venezuelans, control the levers of power."

In fact, regional leaders are courting Cuba to support a diplomatic push to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to Havana this weekend, reports the Financial Times."The initiative, which Argentina and Mexico are understood to support, is controversial but potentially effective as socialist Cuba is Venezuela’s strongest ally and its intelligence services are understood to work as close advisers to" Maduro.

Participants in Sunday’s informal plebiscite were asked three yes-no questions: Do they reject Maduro’s planned constitutional assembly? Do they want the armed forces to support the existing constitution and the decisions of the opposition-controlled congress? And do they want a national unity government to be formed and fresh elections held?

At the end of the day, the opposition said that more than 98 percent of respondents rejected the planned constitutional assembly; more than 95 percent said they wanted the military to support the current constitution and congressional decisions, and more than 98 percent backed the idea of new elections.

Smilde drew attention to the potential for more variation in the response to the three questions, as some dissident Chavistas called for a yes vote on the first question and not the other two. For example, attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz's husband, a lawmaker from Maduro's United Socialist Party, cast a ballot responding only to the first question, according to the NYT.

An estimated 12 percent of the Venezuelan population now lives abroad, and residents in more than 75 countries were thought to have cast votes, reports the Miami Herald.

Thousands of Venezuelans are opting to leave in anyway they can. The UNHCR estimates that about 300,000 are living in Colombia, which recently sent a delegation to Turkey to study that country’s experience with Syrian refugees, reports the Guardian. Other parts of the region, including the Caribbean, Brazil and Peru are also feeling migratory impact.

The inflation rate in Venezuela could reach 720 percent this year, according to IMF estimates, and the cost of basic groceries is now about five times the minimum wage, reports the New York Times. The piece explores the causes of the current food crisis, including tightly controlled currency exchange, seizure of private property and regulated production.

And as protests continue, human rights groups denounce the rise of political prisoners, held in greater numbers than at any other time in the past 18 years of Bolivarian government, reports the Wall Street Journal. Foro Penal counts about 440 political prisoners, up from 117 before the protests started on April 1. In all, 3,500 people have been detained since the protests, most for short periods of time.

Violent raids by security forces are also becoming more common, reports Reuters. They "typically include arbitrary destruction and sometimes theft of private property, as well as the participation of unidentified masked men, according to witnesses."

News Briefs
  • Police reform in Latin America is highly vulnerable to political reversals. New policies can be quickly rolled back before they can take hold and demonstrate results, according to research by Yanilda González of the University of Chicago. She writes about how ambitious reform efforts in Colombia and Argentina's Buenos Aires province in the 90s were quickly rolled back by mano dura politicians promising mano dura. "My research also demonstrates that police forces that are resistant to reforms have considerable power to undermine them," she writes in the Conversation.
  • Violence is soaring in Mexico's Sinaloa State, as rival cartel factions battle over the empire of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, reports the Wall Street Journal. Close to 900 people have been murdered in Sinaloa over the first six months of 2017, almost twice the number of homicides over the same period last year, according to the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office. Most of the increase is due to drug killings. (See July 6's post.)
  • Family and friends of slain Mexican journalist Javier Valdez blocked the Sinaloa state Attorney General’s Office on Saturday to protest the lack of progress in the murder investigation, reports EFE. (See May 16's post.)
  • Guatemalan police arrested 17 people on suspicion of involvement in a web of money laundering and illegal election financing on Friday, reports Reuters. The U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala says the scheme was run by former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, who has been a fugitive from justice since last year. The investigation has also implicated a local unit of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim's America Movil. A former ambassador to the United States was among those whose arrest was ordered last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • After Hurricane Matthew in October of last year, many Haitian victims feel abandoned, reports the Miami Herald. Aid has trickled to a stop and food staples once grown in affected areas now have to be trucked in at very high prices.
  • The United Nations says there was a 50 percent increase last year in the area of land being used to cultivate coca leaf in Colombia, reports the BBC.
  • The town of Lares in Puerto Rico has earned the dubious distinction of losing a quarter of its population since 2000. Its indicative of a wider malaise in the U.S. territory, where about 400,000 people have moved away since the 2000 census, reports the New York Times.
  • About once a year torrential downpours bring down fish from the skies, according to local legend in La Unión, Honduras. The phenomenon has occurred for years, but its still not clear how the small silvery fish wind up in a field 45 miles from the Atlantic Ocean after torrential rains, reports the New York Times.

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