Thursday, October 27, 2016

Venezuela's opposition takes to the streets (Oct. 27, 2016)

Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded the streets of Venezuelan cities yesterday. Dressed in white, the demonstrators demanded the ouster of President Nicolás Maduro, after the government postponed a recall referendum drive last week.

The Associated Press reports tens of thousands of demonstrators on Caracas' main highway yesterday, and police clashes with protesters in several other cities. A police officer was shot and two others wounded in Miranda, under unclear circumstances. And a rights group, Foro Penal, estimates that 140 people were detained by police in relation to the protests.

The political opposition says they have no legal recourse left to challenge Maduro, and have promised to maintain popular pressure on the government. Leaders called for a 12-hour general strike on Friday, and another march, to the presidential palace, next week of the government doesn't give in to demands for a referendum, reports the New York Times.

But the massive turnout surprised observers, who thought efforts might be dissipated by a Vatican mediated dialogue announced earlier this week, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Unlike the Sept. 1 protests, yesterday's were organized in a matter of days and featured mostly local protesters. (See Sept. 2's post.)

If the government maintains its block of the referendum, "it would be a significant escalation of tensions and likely lead to clashes with pro-government supporters," according to the Miami Herald, which makes reference to 2014 protests which left 43 dead.

The Wall Street Journal says it has been difficult for the opposition to mobilize since then, though turnout at demonstrations has grown in recent months, and hazards that the government could turn to violent repression again.

Foro Penal documented dozens of injuries yesterday, mostly from rubber bullets used by security forces to disperse demonstrations, reports the WSJ. Efecto Cocuyo reports 30 injured, half in Merida.

But other pieces focus more on the lack of cohesion within the opposition as a reason for lack of protests in recent years, despite a worsening economic crisis. David Smilde told the NYT that the opposition is "underperforming given the level of discontent," and that its challenge now will be to "take this outpouring and channel it into a sustained movement on the streets."

The opposition has been barred from protesting in front of the presidential palace since a march there helped spur a short coup agains t former President Hugo Chávez in 2002, according to the AP.

It's not clear who from the opposition coalition, if anybody, will participate in this weekend's Vatican mediated dialogue with the government, according to the NYT. And while Venezuelans are angry about the rampant economic crisis, which they blame on government policies, the Maduro administration is firmly in control of all of the state institutions (including military and judiciary) with the exception of the National Assembly, notes the AP.

The Miami Herald reports efforts by the government to limit the impact of the protests, including closing roads and large segments of the Caracas metro, and turning back journalists arriving in the country to cover the protests.

With no clear legal recourse to oust Maduro, it's natural that the opposition is turning to civil disobedience, argues a New York Times editorial, that says mediation is unlikely to yield results. The piece calls for harsher regional condemnation of the government and places responsibility for any protest related violence squarely at Maduro's feet. "In the meantime, ordinary citizens suffer from malnutrition and are dying needlessly, problems aggravated by the Maduro government’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid. As the situation worsens, it is only logical that more Venezuelans will be driven by desperation to rise up."

"Facing the certainty of electoral exit, the government and the ruling part have shown themselves willing to take risky alternate, potentially explosive, decisions. After all, they are exchanging the "certainty" of an ouster by referendum for the "risk" of an exit provoked by popular actions or reactions that could occur ... or not," writes Luis Vicente León in Prodavinci. He too predicts violence, but not massive, but rather focused on dividing and dissuading opposition leaders.

In the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer says "there is only one way to prevent a possible bloodbath: an international diplomatic offensive to restore democracy in Venezuela." Regional expressions of concern are no longer enough, Venezuela must be suspended from the OAS if it does not allow the referendum to go forward, he writes.

Over at Prodavinci, lawyer José Ignacio Hernández analyzes the National Assembly attempt to oust Maduro accusing him of carrying out a coup. (See yesterday's post.)

Mercosur aside: The trade bloc's foreign ministers are meeting today in Colombia to debate suspending Venezuela for violating the group's democratic charter, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • The U.N. General Assembly voted, as it has for the past quarter-century, to condemn the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. But for the first time the U.S. abstained on the vote. The resolution passed with 191 votes in favor, none against, and two abstaining (Israel accompanied the U.S.). The New York Times reports that U.S. ambassador Samantha Power "beamed" when she announced the change, referring to the resolution as "a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve." The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, said the costs of the 50 "blockade" have been incalculable, and the effects have been felt by the entire Cuban population. The U.S. vote drew condemnation from South Florida lawmakers, who pointed to it as another example of the Obama administration bowing to the Cuban government, reports the Miami Herald. The embargo can only be lifted by Congress, and continues to have support among Republicans there.
  • Panama signed onto an international treaty aimed at curbing tax evasion -- committing the country to sharing information with 104 other signatories, reports the Wall Street Journal. The move comes seven months after a massive document leak showed how shell companies and offshore accounts allow the world's rich and powerful to avoid fiscal responsibilities. 
  • Colombians are watching to see if the ELN releases its last political hostage in order to start peace talks scheduled for today. La Silla Vacía reports that he may have already been liberated, but the government maintains that talks will not start until Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca is freed.
  • Observers of Mexican corruption have latched onto the case of former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, who is being charged with corruption and racketeering. But whether or not he winds up in jail belies the wider systemic corruption that allowed him to operate for years, argues Daniel Moreno in at New York Times Español op-ed. He criticizes President Enrique Peña Nieto's toothless fight against corruption. "Without a significant change in the mechanisms of controllership, a governor in jail would be a poor sign of change."
  • TeleSur reports that the U.N. Human Rights Committee accepted a petition from former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's lawyers, claiming a judge overseeing the Petrobras corruption case violated Lula's rights by charging him with the same allegations several times and detaining him arbitrarily without any evidence.
  • Puerto Rico is losing its doctors to higher salaries and lower living costs on the U.S. mainland, leaving the island woefully short of specialists, reports the Associated Press.

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