Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Venezuelan opposition launches ouster campaign (March 9, 2016)

The Venezuelan opposition launched a multi-pronged campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro. The Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition said its more than two dozen parties decided unanimously to activate "all mechanisms for change" in search of a "national unity government," reports Reuters.

That means street protests, a recall referendum or a constitutional amendment cutting the term of charismatic Socialist leader Hugo Chávez's successor.
Nonetheless, the opposition coalition is notoriously fragmented, which might explain the three, overlapping but distinct, approaches. The announcement was delayed by five days. (See last Thursday's briefs.)

The MUD coalition had been meeting for weeks to decide how to install a new government. It said it would pursue "all constitutional means" for change, reports the BBC. Yet none of the three have high chances of success, according to the piece.

Though polls show most Venezuelans oppose Maduro, the move to oust him faces significant obstacles, reports the Wall Street Journal. The President's socialist party dominates all of the country's institutions except the congress.

The opposition faces hostile judicial and electoral institutions that can frustrate its plans with delaying or blocking tactics in favor of the government, notes Reuters.

MUD leader Jesús Torrealba said the three-pronged approach is necessary to avoid court defense of the government, reports the Miami Herald.

The option to cut Maduro's term in office by constitutional amendment will likely be opposed by the Supreme Court which has backed the government in recent decisions, notes Reuters. (See last Wednesday's briefs on the Supreme Court ruling that the opposition-controlled National Assembly has no right to investigate judges appointed at the last minute by their outgoing predecessors.)

The opposition plans to begin rallies in Caracas this Saturday. Public frustration over food and medicine shortages, power and water cuts, and transportation fare increases are already spurring small daily protests. But activists will be wary of repeating the 2014 protests that turned violent and landed opposition leader Leopoldo López in jail, according to Reuters.

Torrealba called on marchers to remain peaceful and refrain from provocations, according to the Miami Herald.

Moderate leader Henrique Capriles is pushing a recall referendum, as allowed under Venezuela's constitution half-way through a presidential term, and has already begun campaigning for it across the country.

Last month Caracas Chronicles reported that a recall referendum requires about 3.9 million signatures of registered voters. In order to succeed it would require at least 25 percent turnout and receive an equal number of votes to those Maduro got in his first election: 7.5 million. "Pretty doable," according to the Chronicles.

But if the vote were delayed until 2017, however, then Maduro's vice-president would be allowed to complete his term.

In a piece from last month Efecto Cocuyo reviewed the other options on the MUD table.

Officials condemn the opposition's plans as a U.S.-backed attempt to bring about a coup d'etat in the nation of 29 million people with the world's largest oil reserves.

Pro-government governors have called for their own "anti-imperialist" rallies for Saturday, reports the Miami Herald. That protest is nominally aimed at a U.S. decree labelling Venezuela a national security threat.

Political risk consultancy Eurasia predicted leading figures in the ruling "Chavismo" movement would rally around Maduro to protect him this year against the opposition, but possibly move against him in 2017 for a change from within, reports Reuters.

Forbes is reporting that the economic crisis is pitting some of the old guard military and legislature against the government, and the the form of the upcoming "Venezuelan regime change will depend on the intensity of the economic crisis in the country."

Nonetheless, while Maduro has continued the Chavista model to  its reductio ad absurdum, "this opposition could indeed rescue Chavismo by misplaying their hand as they have so many times in the past," writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The constitutional amendment route has the disadvantage of dubious legitimacy, and could be viewed negatively by the majority of Venezuelans who are not committed opposition supporters.

For international observers who can't seem to understand the longevity of Chavismo, Smilde has an interesting summary, that serves as a useful counterpoint to those who see the opposition's moves as a done deal:
"Chavez was a charismatic leader who put forward an inspiring nationalistic narrative that said that Venezuela could gain control of its resources and use them to improve the lives of its people. And he fulfilled his promises, at least during his presidency. He was able to reduce poverty and inequality and make people believe in Venezuela again, after the drab technocratic suffering of the 1990s. There was nothing messianic about his leadership and nothing irrational about those who supported him. He really did improve their lives. It was clear to many of us that his economic model was not sustainable long term. But the data are quite clear that many people’s lives improved during his presidency, and these people won’t forget that anytime soon. Indeed, given how terrible the current economic conditions are, it is amazing that Chavismo still has 20 to 30 percent support and this is why. Many still think that Chávez was the only politician who cared about average people."

News Briefs
  • Venezuela is opening an investigation into the possible murder of 28 miners in the country's southeast. More than 1,000 soldiers were deployed searching for the missing men, according to the Associated Press. Family members say their relatives were killed on Friday in a gold-claim dispute. They say gang members dismembered the miners and took the bodies away in a truck. The case has gripped the country and the government says it could be the work of paramilitary forces, reports the Wall Street Journal. The opposition has adopted the cause. Americo de Grazia, an opposition lawmaker, accused the state government of complicity in the crime, which he said was one of nearly two dozen similar episodes over the past decade. The government denies the claims.
  • The economic crisis hammering at Venezuela is affecting even signature government projects like the socialist-dream Chávez City, reports the Associated Press.
  • Amnesty International and other rights groups criticized the Honduran government's response to the murder of an environmental rights activist last week. Yesterday they called for foreign experts to intervene in the investigation into Berta Cáceres' killing, reports Reuters. (See Friday's post.)
  • The crosscurrents of economic crisis and the birth defect of microcephaly are buffeting northeastern Brazil. The New York Times has a feature on one family's struggles that provide a window into the region.
  • Zika is fueling the abortion debate in Brazil, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, the chances of achieving a legal change are remote, according to an expert cited in the piece. (See Feb. 8's briefs for more on Brazil's zika-related abortion debate.)
  • Across the region, Zika is fueling demands for abortion in countries where the procedure is difficult to come by legally, reports the Los Angeles Times. Requests for abortion-inducing medication have surged since the outbreak began. Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Paraguay, Guatemala and Mexico are among the nations that prohibit abortion except when necessary to save a woman's life. Saving a woman’s life as well as protecting her physical health are the criteria for having an abortion in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Grenada. (See post for Dec. 21, 2015, for a general update on abortion in the region.)
  • Zika might be only one of many long-dormant infections that will resurface in coming years due to climate change and deforestation, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • The former chief executive of Brazil's largest construction company, Marcelo Odebrecht, was convicted of corruption and money laundering yesterday. He was sentenced to more than 19 years in prison, reports the New York Times. Judge Sergio Moro said Odebrecht had paid about $35 million in bribes to officials at Petrobras and had used overseas accounts to launder the money and make many of the illicit payments. Odebrecht's stiff sentence forms part of a shift within the Brazilian justice system, along with long prison terms for other executives and politicians implicated in the scandal, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See Monday's post. The New York Times has a helpful (though simplified) guide to the political and economic turmoil in Brazil. WSJ has a timeline looking at the main events in the two year investigation into corruption at Petrobras.)
  • Huffington Post has a series of questions that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva must answer satisfactorily to eliminate doubts about his honesty, including the origins of the 30 million reais that fueled the Lula-owned LILS Palestras and the Lula Institute. (See Monday's post.)
  • A silent, dirty war is underway in Nicaragua. Rebels against Daniel Ortega's government are setting ambushes and attempting to undermine the Sandinista government, just as the contras did in the 1980s. But unlike then, when they received stealth funding from Reagan administration, this time around they are broke, and apparently the targets of a secret assassination campaign by the armed forces, reports the New York Times. The "rearmed" as the contemporary contras have been nicknamed say they have taken up arms against the government demanding fair elections. In a twist, Ortega is criticized for repealing term limits, allowing him to run for a third consecutive term this year. The piece also focuses on the newfound wealth of the Ortega family and supporters, who have benefitted from Venezuelan oil sold at preferential terms. It quotes Octavio Enríquez of Confidencial newsmagazine, who says Nicaragua has developed a whole new social class under the Ortega administration. "We started seeing people in the hierarchy of the ruling party buying luxury cars and $350,000 houses in cash." But Nicaragua's poor have benefitted under the government, as Venezuelan money is used for social projects, and few desire more war. (See post for June 11, 2015, for Confidencial's in-depth investigation into alleged misuse of Venezuelan oil funds.)
  • As the rhetoric in the U.S. Republican primary race continues to heat up, Mexican politicians are responding in increasingly emphatic terms. On Monday Excélsior published comments by President Enrique Peña Nieto comparing Trump's tone to dictators like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and promising that his country will not pay for a wall along the border between Mexico and the U.S., reports Reuters.
  • New York Times editorial draws attention to the absurdity of U.S. government proceedings to deport unaccompanied immigrant children without providing them with lawyers. The federal government is not currently obligated to appoint lawyers for non-citizens, including the children, who are often seeking refuge from violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The editorial urges the government to find a way to ensure the minors receive fair representation.

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