Monday, August 7, 2017

Venezuela's attorney general ousted, military base attacked (Aug. 7, 2017)

Venezuela has "seen several days of fast-moving, disruptive events," but the rapid pace of evolution has only contributed to ordinary Venezuelans' weariness as the crisis drags on, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuela's chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former government loyalist turned fierce critic, was removed from office by the country's newly sworn in Constituent Assembly (ANC). She was unanimously voted out on Saturday and replaced with Tarek William Saab, a government supporter had been serving as the nation’s ombudsman reports the Guardian. Saab was recently sanctioned by the U.S. for failing to protect protesters from abuse by the security forces.

Ortega labelled the move a "siege," and posted pictures of troops outsider her office on social media. She was blocked from entering her headquarters by members of the National Guard, and wound up retreating from the area on a motorbike, reports the New York Times. Ortega also said members of her staff were trapped inside the building by the troops, reports the Washington Post.

Ortega said her suspension was illegitimate and that she would continue her investigations, reports the Wall Street Journal. On Friday she had challenged the legality of the new ANC.

The head of the Organization of American States (OAS), meanwhile, condemned a "flagrant violation" of the prosecutor’s institutional independence. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an autonomous arm of the OAS, granted “precautionary measures” of protection for Ortega, saying she faced imminent risk of harm after senior officials linked her to alleged "terrorism."

"This is a regime that has already crossed all the red lines, all of them," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. "This is a civic-military dictatorship with more than 600 political prisoners. It´s reminiscent of South America´s military dictatorships of the 70s."

The new National Constituent Assembly was inaugurated Friday, despite heavy international condemnation. That same day the Vatican rejected the new body, which it said "create[s] a climate of tension and conflict" in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, reports the Guardian. The Vatican has been "chiding" the Venezuelan government for months, though Friday's rhetoric represents a ratcheting up of criticism, the latest in an increasingly fraught relationship, reports the Washington Post.

In the Assembly's first session Diosdado Cabello proposed the body govern for two years before presenting the country with a new Constitution that would allow for elections, reports the New York Times. The last Constitutional Assembly, in 1999, held sessions for just six months, notes the WSJ. Assembly members' speeches seem to imply that the private sector -- blamed by the government for hyper-inflation and widespread shortages -- would be a target.

The assembly is technically above the president, and there has been speculation that rivals from within Maduro's party could try to take control of the body and sideline him, reports the New York Times separately. Former foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez, a close ally of Maduro's was chosen to lead the assembly, however, indicating his control of the situation for now.

Though there has been fear that the new organ would over-ride the opposition-led National Assembly, the Constituent Assembly chose to gather in an adjoining hall in the Capitol building, indicating the two bodies' potential coexistence, according to the NYT.

On Saturday, prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López was released back into house arrest, after being suddenly rearrested last week by intelligence agents. (See last Tuesday's post.)

Yesterday a group of 20 men attacked a Venezuelan army base, declaring themselves in rebellion against the Maduro government and making off with weapons, reports the Guardian.

According to the government, two attackers were killed as they headed towards the base's weapons supply, and a third was wounded. Seven others were arrested and 10 escaped. The government described it as a "terrorist" and "paramilitary attack," reports the Wall Street Journal.

The attack came as a group of armed men in military uniform released a video calling for Venezuelans to rebel against the government, reports the New York Times.

One Venezuelan navy defector described the attack, "Operation David," as a complete success and the first phase of a broader military movement that has elements within the Venezuelan military and in units outside the country, according to the Guardian.

Military support of the government has been considered key to keeping it in power in the midst of Venezuela's crisis. Loyalty has been somewhat assured by participation of top brass in government posts. Many high ranking officers are linked to corruption and drugs trade, creating loyalty to the current system. A large-scale uprising is unlikely, according to the WSJ, rather smaller rebellions could continue to occur.

Migration towards Colombia is becoming a massive exodus, forcing the neighboring country to adapt to a new role. Officials from Bogotá have travelled to Turkey to study its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, reports the Guardian.

South American trade bloc Mercosur suspended Venezuela indefinitely on Saturday for failing to follow democratic norms.

Internationally, this is a moment of triumph for the political opposition -- but the roots of the current crisis lie, in part, in "... the entrenched resistance and sabotage [Chávez] encountered from vested interests in Venezuela’s vital oil industry, middle-class business circles, the judiciary and the civil service," argues an Observer editorial. "Their refusal to accept Chávez’s political legitimacy, despite his repeated electoral victories, was fundamentally anti-democratic – as was the support, licit and illicit, they received from Washington, dramatised by the failed, US-approved 2002 military coup. ... Who is Donald Trump, that serial underminer of constitutional governance and enemy of free speech, to pass judgment? Who are these holier-than-thou Latin American neighbours, mired like Brazil’s president in sleaze, to threaten expulsion from Mercosur, the regional trade organisation? What purpose is served by further isolating a country that attempted a different way to overcome problems of chronic inequality, injustice and grinding poverty?

"Venezuela and Chávez led the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 1990s. Now that tide has receded. It has been largely replaced by governments and politicians wedded to the neoliberal, fiscally responsible and socially disastrous economic model promoted by Washington. But the presumptuous challenge Venezuela once posed to the US-decreed order has not been forgotten or forgiven. As they ponder the current crisis, western leaders and the political right should consider their share of responsibility. Stop harrumphing. Start helping."

And from Venezuela, a thoughtful piece in the Caracas Chronicles by Emiliana Duarte, a government opponent on how the government's supporters are also genuine. She chronicles her experience in the constituent assembly election. "Baffling though it is to us, there are still millions of chavistas who are genuinely, intimately excited to vote in support of the Constituyente, even if most were unsure about what that even meant or who they were electing. The opposition as a whole —and I personally— can’t understand that, and so we tend towards denial."

Semantics: The Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer argues it's time for journalists to start labelling Maduro a dictator, instead of Venezuela's president.

News Briefs
  • Mortality among migrants attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border increased 17 percent in the first seven months of the year, though significantly less people are attempting the journey, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). A particularly hot summer and increasing violence in border towns could have impacted the fatality rate, Adam Isacson, senior associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America told the Guardian.
  • At least seven recent reports point to failures in Mexico's asylum system that leave potential refugees unprotected, reports the New York Times. The weaknesses include lack of personnel, forcing would-be refugees to wait for months, inadequate training of immigration officials, and inconsistent application of asylum law. The piece cites WOLA's recent study on access to justice in Mexico for migrants. The study found that crimes -- including forced disappearances and kidnapping -- remain high against migrants, and that authorities are often unwilling to pursue justice. The issue is of increasing concern as migrants fleeing violence in Central America and facing uncertainty in the U.S. increasingly turn to Mexico as an option. (See July 3's post.)
  • A report last week found that staff at Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM) abused and even tortured migrants held in detention centers across the country. The report was created by human rights groups, and commissioned by the INM, which later disputed the most serious finding, reports Reuters. Central American migrants interviewed complained of regular physical and verbal abuse, including death threats. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • More than 3,500 Brazilian soldiers have been deployed in Rio de Janeiro's favelas to combat a spike in violence, reports the Associated Press. (See last Monday's briefs.) "Beset by corruption, a slumping economy and a surge in violent crime, Rio de Janeiro has become the most striking symbol of everything that is going wrong with Latin America’s largest country," reports the Financial Times. The piece focuses particularly on the increase in insecurity, and the crisis afflicting policing efforts. It mentions an app, Fogo Cruzado, or Crossfire, that provides real-time information on shoot-outs, and quotes Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah who says "the public security sector is severely, chronically underfunded, it suffers from some weak leadership and the police has extraordinary low morale right now."
  • An outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil appears to have ended before spreading to the country's megacities, reports the New York Times. (See Feb. 3's briefs.)
  • Humanitarian groups in Haiti are already having difficulty assisting tens of thousands of Haitians who have been forced to leave the Dominican Republic in recent years due to a crackdown on undocumented migrants (many of whom were born or lived most of their lives there). Now it's not clear how they will deal with the potential influx of 58,000 Haitians whose protected immigration status in the U.S. will end in January, reports the Miami Herald. (See last Friday's post, for example.) The International Organization for Migration has registered 192,685 returnees and refugees since June 2015, many living in precarious border camps with little access to basic necessities.
  • One police officer was injured in Colombia when a U.N. team was ambushed while extracting hidden explosives in the state of Cauca, reports TeleSUR. The team was made up of U.N. observers, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, and police officers. The ELN said it was not involved in the attack.
  • The National Liberation Army, ELN, is considering a temporary ceasefire with the Colombian Government before September, reports TeleSUR.
  • Several human rights groups, including  the Committee for Free Expression or C-Libre, have filed a lawsuit at the Honduran Public Ministry, denouncing alleged police abuses during the student protests at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, or UNAH, reports TeleSUR.
  • Ecuador's Vice President was suspended last week for an indeterminate amount of time, a day after he questioned government economic figures in his latest clash with President Lenin Moreno, reports Reuters.
  • A Peruvian court found that former President Ollanta Humala and his wife must remain in pre-trial detention for up to 18 months while they are investigated for alleged corruption, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico's attorney general is investigating ten different criminal organizations operating in Mexico City, which contradicts a long-held narrative that cartels have no presence in the capital, reports Insight Crime.
  • Animal Político profiles María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, "Marichuy," an indigenous leader and Mexican presidential candidate.
  • Avocado exports bring Mexico more money than petroleum -- but success has driven prices out of reach for many in the domestic market, and the country could even wind up importing the so-called "green gold," reports the Guardian.
  • Newly released documents relating to John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination show that in the following years key CIA officials were concerned the investigation had never followed up clues about killer Lee Harvey Oswald's contact with foreign agents, including diplomats and spies for the Communist governments of Cuba and the Soviet Union, reports Politico. "The CIA documents also offer tantalizing speculation about the chain of events in late 1963 that explained Oswald’s motives for killing Kennedy, which have previously never been established with certainty—how he may have become enraged after reading a detailed article in his hometown newspaper in New Orleans in September suggesting that his hero Castro had been targeted for assassination by the Kennedy administration. According to that theory, Oswald, who had rifle training in the Marine Corps, then set out to seek vengeance on Castro’s behalf—to kill Kennedy before the American president managed to kill the Cuban leader. If that proved true, it would have raised a terrible question for the CIA: Was it possible that JFK’s assassination was, directly or indirectly, blowback for the spy agency’s plots to kill Castro?"

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