Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Venezuela continues polemic anti-smuggler offensive on Colombian border (Sept. 9, 2015)

Workers, vacationers and members of a nomadic indigenous community were stranded by the Venezuelan government's decision to suddenly close another border crossing with Colombia as part of an ongoing anti-smuggling offensive. The latest crossing is an important economic hub, near Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, in the northwest corner of the country. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The latest shutdown leaves the two countries virtually cut-off from each other, despite sharing a 1,247 mile frontier, reports the Miami Herald. Though both sides say they are willing to negotiate, the ongoing escalation and heated rhetoric make face-to-face talks increasingly difficult.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez Tuesday, in an attempt to normalize relations between the two countries, reports TeleSur.

President Nicolás Maduro also announced that he was extending a "state of exception"—which permits the suspension of constitutional guarantees and allows soldiers to raid homes without warrants— from Táchira state into the neighboring northwestern state of Zulia, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations -- Rafael Ramírez, a former foreign minister, energy minister and head of the national oil company -- strenuously defended the border closings yesterday, arguing that illicit trafficking of domestic fuel, food and other goods by smugglers accounted for 35 percent of all Venezuelan economic output, reports the New York Times. Ramírez was responding to what the Venezuelan government has described as one-sided news coverage about the Venezuelan crackdown.

The Associated Press reports on the difficulties caused by the latest border closing -- which adds to the ongoing complications between the two countries. The United Nations said as of Monday 1,467 Colombians had been deported from Venezuela into four Colombian states, reports the WSJ. The U.N. said an additional 18,619 Colombians had come home, overwhelming Colombian shelters and creating a potential humanitarian crisis. While they have not been officially deported, many report pressure from security forces, according to a U.N. official in Colombia.

The AP piece notes that Venezuelan authorities might encounter resistance from hundreds of thousands of Wayuu Indians who live on both sides of the border and who don't recognize the international division. The tribe is heavily involved in smuggling, which they don't consider an illicit act.

The border closings target the extensive illicit trade between the two countries, but are also affecting the legitimate economy in the region.

News Briefs

  • In other Venezuela news, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights  criticized Venezuela on Monday for forcing an opposition TV channel -- Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) -- off the air in 2007 and told President Nicolas Maduro's government to grant the broadcaster its old frequency, reports Reuters.
  • The Ecuadorian government ordered a media freedom monitoring NGO to shutdown, saying it posted politically charged messages on social media. The organization --La Fundación Andina para la Observación y Estudio de los Medios (Fundamedios) -- housed independent opinion blogs on its site, reports El Comercio. The official notification accuses Fundamedios of disseminating messages with "indisputably political" leanings, allegedly in contradiction with its organizational by-laws and Ecuadorian law governing the role of civic organizations with a social purpose. The charges "are politically motivated and glaring examples of the government’s lack of respect for freedom of speech," said Freedom House.
  • Two high level Mexican prosecutors are pushing back against an independent report criticizing the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state last year. Their defense of what, by all accounts, was a very botched process, has some rights defenders concerned that about whether the government will fulfill its promise to correct shortcomings of the investigation into the students’ disappearance, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.) Still it's worth noting that high level officials, including President Enrique Peña Nieto, have embraced parts of the report, which was presented Sunday and raised important questions about the government's version of the events and how it conducted the investigation.
  • An investigative piece in Proceso tears even more holes in the official version of events: The Mexican army monitored the movements of the students who later went missing for hours before they were first attacked, and was present when many of them were abducted, reports the Huffington Post.
  • Peña Nieto submitted an austere budget proposal for next year to Mexico's Congress yesterday, calling for spending cuts to narrow the fiscal deficit, as lower oil prices reduce expected revenue, reports the Wall Street Journal. The government already has made 124 billion pesos of the total cuts this year.

  • Four Mexican officials have been charged with aiding the escape of the notorious drugs lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a maximum security prison. Two are members of Mexico's secret service who were based at the prison. The others were control room employees who should have monitored his cell, reports the BBC.

  • The Vérité (Truth) Party, a leading Haitian political party, announced it will boycott next month's legislative elections, saying it was the primary victim of violence during the first round of voting last month, reports the Reuters. It's a hit for the already fragile institutional stability on the island. August's voting was marred by some episodes of violence and delays at polling stations (see August 10th's post).
  • The Miami Herald has a piece on Haiti's Education Minister, Nesmy Manigat, who has faced a difficult tenure in a country where access and quality of education are a challenge, to say the least.
  • A Guatemalan judge found the evidence against former President Otto Pérez Molina sufficient to force him to stand trial on charges of bribery, customs fraud and conspiracy, reports theNew York Times. Judge Miguel Angel Galvez also decided to keep Pérez Molina behind bars to ensure his presence at the trial, reports the Los Angeles Times. Prosecutors have three months to complete the investigation, ruled the judge. The hearing lasted more than five hours, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil and Chile joined the chorus of Latin American countries who said they'd be willing to take in Syrian refugees, reports AFP. Uruguay already has taken in five families -- though they are currently protesting for more assistance -- and Argentina and Venezuela announced they'd be willing to take in refugees. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • The Uruguayan foreign minister spoke out yesterday against President Tabare Vazquez’s decision to withdraw from talks on the proposed international Trade in Services Agreement, known as TISA, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Urban design junkies should check out this piece in the New York Times on the ongoing conservation versus construction debate in Mexico City where critics complain the city is losing its historic charm in a sea of high rises.

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