Monday, July 24, 2017

Venezuela's government insists on constituent assembly (July 24, 2017)

On Friday the opposition-led National Assembly swore in 13 magistrates as replacements for pro-government Supreme Court magistrates. Immediately after, the top judge in the constitutional chamber accused those named by lawmakers of treason, reports the Wall Street Journal. The court's constitutional chamber had previously declared that such a move would constitute a crime and usurpation of powers by congress. Lawmakers say they have the right to name and fire justices under the country's constitution, reports the BBC.

Opposition leaders said Angel Zerpa, one of the 13 alternative magistrates, was arrested on Saturday by the government’s intelligence service, reports the Guardian.

The court has a total of 32 judges. The court has played a key role in stripping down legislative power since the opposition won a National Assembly majority at the end of 2015. The judges lawmakers seek to replace were approved after that election, before the new congress was sworn in. (See post for Jan. 4, 2016.)

On Saturday several thousand protesters attempted to march to the Supreme Court building in support of the alternative magistrates, reports the Guardian. It was however a "disappointing turnout" for the opposition, according to the Associated Press.

Lawmakers last week also discussed a "national unity government," raising the specter of a parallel government, notes the BBC.

The opposition is upping pressure this week ahead of a government convened vote next Sunday for a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders called for a two day national strike against the government after violent clashes between security forces and protesters on Saturday, reports Reuters. Mass marches are planned for today and Friday.

Over the weekend, Maduro promised to push ahead with the controversial plan, despite local and international pressure to change course, reports Reuters. Critics say the assembly will pave the way to an authoritarian government, while the government says its necessary to escape the current political impasse.

The entire process of convening the constituent assembly, as well as how its going to be structured, already demonstrate the government's authoritarian tendencies, argue Laura Gamboa and Raúl Sánchez Urribarri in the Conversation

Venezuela's crisis is terminal, writes Alberto Barrera Tyska in a New York Times Español op-ed. The only option for the government to remain in power is to turn towards illegitimacy, while the opposition lacks the ability to set up a real, functioning parallel state, he warns. Both sides have no option other than the negotiating table. But the real deciding factor will be the military, he argues. The success or not of a negotiation will lie with them, and international efforts should turn towards pressuring the armed forces.

A U.S. oil embargo is effectively the "nuclear" option against the Maduro government, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. receives about a third of Venezuela’s production of about 2.1 million barrels a day, and is a critical source of hard cash for the country. But the effect of an embargo could be so devastating that even some Maduro opponents say it would be a step too far, notes Anthony Faiola. U.S. oil payments fund critically needed imports of food and medicine, and could give Maduro a convenient scapegoat for added misery. A senior member of an opposition party suggested U.S. officials employ more nuanced tools -- such as publishing information about corrupt officials' U.S. holdings, blocking the sale of Venezuelan debt, and tying future projects with Venezuelan oil to National Assembly approval.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde review the various international responses to last week's symbolic referendum against the constituent assembly plan and the potential effects of broad sanctions against the Venezuelan government. "There is no way to apply economic sanctions now in Venezuela without making the humanitarian situation much worse. People will starve to death," Smilde told the AFP last week.

Also last week, Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan trade minister now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Wall Street Journal that an oil embargo would be "political manna from heaven for Caracas," as it would allow Maduro to blame ensuing misery on U.S. imperialism.

Think it sounds like the Cuba embargo debate? Indeed, "the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade," notes the Miami Herald. In fact U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is among those proposing a hardline against the Venezuelan government, notes Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (And so is OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.)

Ahead of next Sunday's vote, government employees are denouncing that they are being coerced to participate -- at risk of losing their jobs, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Local civil society group Provea has denounced that such pressure is a human rights violation. And while casting a null vote apparently isn't an option in the election, local groups are giving instructions on how to trick voting machines to permit them.

The New York Times has a photo essay from the Venezuelan "resistance" front lines. With nearly 100 deaths in over three months of protests, families of victims are carrying on the fight, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Hundreds of relatives of Rio de Janeiro police officers gathered in the Brazilian city yesterday, protesting a lack of resources for security forces combatting organized crime. The demonstration came hours after an officer was killed in an operative in the Vidigal favela. The Brazilian government announced last week it would send an extra 1,000 federal agents to support local police, reports the BBC. Over 90 officers have been killed so far this year, and police say their deaths are given less importance than human rights abuses committed by security operations. According to Amnesty International, more than 800 people were killed by the police in the state of Rio in 2016.
  • New limits on seasonal worker visas to the U.S. have hit businesses that depend on unskilled, nonagricultural workers -- such as carnivals, reports the New York Times. Critics say the system enables worker abuses, but Mexican seasonal migrants say the lack of income is hitting them hard.
  • U.S. plans to end temporary protected status for about 58,000 Haitian immigrants has many migrants living in fear of losing dreams of advancement and having to return to a country with fewer opportunities, reports the New York Times.
  • The Colombian government faces a conundrum in how to deal with small-time coca growers who also process the leaf into coca paste used to make cocaine. A temporary amnesty for small-time growers who agree to participate in a crop substitution program is necessary to convince farmers to participate and is part of the peace agreement with the FARC, explains La Silla Vacía. But 40 percent of these farmers also process the leaf, and including them in the temporary amnesty is politically tricky.
  • Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, has traveled to Cuba several times to explore the possibility of doing business on the island, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Tourism in the first half of the year made the Cuban economy grow, but other sectors have failed to meet government targets, reports the Miami Herald
  • The World Bank's arbitration tribunal has ordered Argentina to pay $320 million plus interest and legal fees to Spanish travel group Marsans for expropriating Aerolineas Argentinas in 2008, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's mandate is ending, an apparent close to a cycle of female presidencies in the region -- a sign of the difficulties of reaching true political gender equality, reports the New York Times. The cases of Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bachelet also show some of the difficulties faced by women leaders. All three say their gender exposed them to "particularly virulent backlashes."
  • Code-switchers unite! Spanglish in its various local forms across Latin America needs to be embraced as a linguistic movement in its own right, argues Ilan Stavans in a New York Times op-ed -- in which he compares it to Yiddish.  "It is time we stop this condescending approach to Spanglish. Puerto Ricans are proof of the durability of the phenomenon. In fact, we must see Spanglish as a new language. While it’s still not standardized, millions of speakers use it every day, creating their own syntactic rules. Looking down at them as barbarous speaks tons. ... I will not be surprised if a Nobel is given in the next few decades to a Spanglish author whose oeuvre will need to be translated into Spanish and English to be fully understood by non-Spanglish speakers."

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