Monday, May 8, 2017

What will Venezuela's military do? (May 8, 2017)

A young Venezuelan died after being shot in the head last Thursday, bringing the protest related death count to at least 37, reports Reuters. Another 717 people have been injured and 152 are still in jail from the hundreds rounded up in widespread unrest across the country, according to a tally kept by the Valencia state prosecutor's office. And a group of young men destroyed a statue of the late leader Hugo Chávez in the oil-producing Zulia state on Friday, according to videos circulated on social media.

Last week WOLA called on Venezuela's government to announce an electoral timetable for overdue elections for state governors and pending mayoral elections. The organization also noted with concern President Nicolás Maduro's plan to create a National Constituent Assembly. 

"Let there be no doubt, the Maduro government is convening a Constituent Assembly as a means to avoid holding elections it knows it will lose," said David Smilde, WOLA Senior Fellow. "The way it has been called violates the people’s constitutional rights, and the structure that is being proposed could disempower the people for many years to come." (See last Tuesday's post.)

Experts and opposition leaders have noted that it seems the 1999 Constitution, passed by Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez, would require a referendum to convene a National Constituent Assembly. In addition, Maduro has suggested a vote for the participants of the assembly would be within "social sectors," allowing the government to favor supporters. 

Venezuela's opposition has promised to boycott the proposal, reports Bloomberg. Instead more protests were planned for today. 

"WOLA is also concerned about the timing of this initiative. Constituent Assemblies are best undertaken in an environment of significant consensus, usually after an electoral process that confers fresh legitimacy upon elected authorities. In the current context, however, the government in power has weak public support and has postponed both the presidential recall referendum and regional elections that were to have taken place in 2016. This gives the unavoidable impression that the initiative is being used to avoid elections rather than build upon them. This in turn suggests that a Constituent Assembly would be used not to consolidate a moment of consensus, but prevent one from occurring."

Some academics say Venezuela is ripe for elite fracture, "in which enough powerful officials break away to force a change in leadership," according to the New York Times' Interpreter. "Elite fracture operates as a kind of game in which each player tries to figure out what the others are about to do. Stay loyal to a failing government too long and you risk going down with it. But if you break with the government and others don’t, you’ll pay a high price for disloyalty." In part this hasn't happened yet on a broad scale because of a combination of patronage for loyalists, who have significant financial stakes in the current system, and intense ideological polarization, according to the piece. 

The military in particular has been richly rewarded for loyalty. Several experts have pointed to a potential refusal to repress protesters as a possible turning point for the government. A Christian Science Monitor editorial says "a moment of conscience by security forces may be coming to Venezuela." And last week Benigno Alarcón argued in the Conversation that the evolution of the current crisis depends -- to a broad extent -- on the military, which must decide whether to continue supporting the Maduro administration and repressing protesters, or falling back on institutional neutrality. (See last Thursday's briefs.)

A former Chávez spy-chief is trying to position himself as a third way for Venezuelans, reports the Associated Press. Miguel Rodríguez Torres is a longshot -- hated by the political opposition for leading a 2014 crackdown on protests, but also ostracized by a government he has sharply criticized. "But he nevertheless is finding an audience among Venezuelans who have abandoned support for a government that has failed to resolve the economic crisis but still distrust the opposition." Rodríguez Torres differentiates himself from other critics of the government by his military ties ...

A U.S. National Security advisor met with Venezuelan National Assembly President Julio Borges, an opposition leader, on Friday, reports Reuters. They discussed key opposition demands, such as the release of political prisoners, immediate elections, and respect for the National Assembly.

The wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, Lilian Tintori, said her husband is well and urges supporters to maintain pressure on the government through street protests, reports Reuters. (See last Thursday's post on a rumor that López was in grave condition.)

The Wall Street Journal has the latest feature on the so-called Maduro diet, which has led three fourths of Venezuelans to lose weight over the past year thanks to food shortages. "The most recent Caritas study of 800 children under the age of 5 in Yare and three other communities showed that in February nearly 11 percent suffered from severe acute malnutrition, which is potentially fatal, compared with 8.7 percent in October. Caritas said nearly a fifth of children under age 5 in those four communities suffered from chronic malnutrition, which stunts growth and could mark a generation. ... By World Health Organization standards, Caritas’s findings constitute a crisis that calls for the government to marshal extraordinary aid. But authorities have resisted offers of food and aid from abroad."

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to replace the prosecutor heading a special office responsible for prosecuting cases involving the freedom of expression, amid increasing reports of lethal violence against journalists. Last year 11 journalists were killed, the highest rate in over a decade, and so far this year, five have been assassinated. Prosecutor Ricardo Nájera has been criticized for failing to take on cases in which evidence exists that the victim’s reporting and writing had provoked attacks, reports the New York Times. (See last Wednesday's post.)
  • Mexico State voters choose a governor next month, in a race that's often considered a bellwether for presidential elections, which will next be held in 2018. The state, Mexico's most populous, has been run by the PRI for the past 80 years. This year however the race is far closer than in 2011, when the PRI won with 61 percent. Voters in Mexico are angry at a government riddled with corruption, increasing violence rates, perceived weakness in foreign relations and weak economic growth, reports the New York Times. The biggest beneficiary of this dissatisfaction, thus far, is Andrés Manuel López Obrador's Morena party. 
  • A former Odebrecht exec has testified that in 2014 he was asked to pay a bribe of $5 million to the then-head of Mexican state oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos, reports the Wall Street Journal. The testimony is part of a broader corruption investigation in Brazil.  Emilio Lozoya, former Pemex chief executive, denies requesting or receiving bribes.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be questioned by crusading corruption judge Sergio Moro this week -- the head of the Car Wash investigation warned protesters to stay away from the Curitiba courthouse. There are fears that supporters and opponents could clash, reports AFP.
  • Lula opened the Workers' Party congress on Friday with former Uruguayan President José Mujica, reports EFE.
  • Politicians affected by the corruption scandals (everybody?), including Lula, are unlikely to return to their previous positions of power, according to former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, himself under investigation, reports Reuters.
  • The former head of Brazil's indigenous rights agency, FUNAI, said he was fired for refusing to hire unqualified applicants recommended by a lawmaker. He also said his hands were tied by a 40 percent budget decrease this year, reports the BBC. The government said indigenous rights are a high priority for the administration. The shakeup comes soon after an attack wounded at least a dozen members of indigenous tribes (see May 2's briefs). A recent protest in Brasilia gathered over 4,000 people demonstrating against violence and demanding better protection of indigenous people's rights. (See April 26's briefs.)
  • Salvadoran cabinet officials are debating what to do if the U.S. follows through on promises to deport massive numbers of street gang members, reports the Associated Press. Potential responses could include tracking gang members deported back to El Salvador and even locking them up, Defense Minister Gen. David Munguia told local media Friday. One proposal involves a bill to detain deported gang members with a criminal record in the U.S., reports La Prensa Gráfica.
  • Ecuador's president-elect Lenín Moreno appears committed to continuing Correa’s economic and social policies, but might lack the legislative and popular majority needed "to push his costly leftist agenda while simultaneously bridging deep socio-political divisions and struggling with vexing economic challenges," argues John Polga-Hecimovich at the AULA blog.
  • Paraguay's Ciudad del Este -- the notorious lawless capital of the porous "Triple Frontera" between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay -- was in the news recently thanks to a Hollywood style bank heist. (See April 26's briefs.) But the city is actually "a laboratory for global free trade," argues Caroline Schuster in the Conversation. "... Far from being ungovernable, this Paraguayan free-trade zone is built on a sophisticated legal, commercial, and financial infrastructure that has made a small group of political and business elites very, very rich."
  • Peruvian miners voted on Friday to approve a national strike in June to protest "anti-labor" government proposals, reports Reuters.
  • Peru's government announced an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity related to the military struggle against Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in the 1990s. The case involves former President Ollanta Humala -- testimony suggests that soldiers under his command tortured and murdered civilians. Humala denies the allegations, reports Reuters.
  • Cuba's revolution, with a capital "R," is irrevocably waning. While the rapprochement between the Cuban government and the U.S. -- traditionally public enemy number 1 -- was the final nail in the coffin, the process has been going for decades, writes Patricio Fernández in the New York Times Español. "This process of degradation is not new, but now it finds itself in a terminal phase. Nobody speaks of socialism. The renaissance of a new bourgeois is notorious. This little group which is leading changes travels often, has internet at home (there are pirate companies that instal it) and serves as a front for money coming in from abroad." Yet political change is not yet a topic that engages most of the population, he writes. 
  • Racial disparity among Cuba's entrepreneurial class is a sign of increased inequality on the island, reports the Miami Herald. Activists have also denounced labor discrimination against Cuban blacks in lucrative sectors such as tourism.
  • A piece on fact checking in the New York Times recognizes the efforts of Argentina's Chequeado.
  • An Argentine judge found that Barrick Gold failed to complete improvements to a mine that could have prevented a third cyanide solution spill in a year an a half, reports Reuters. Barrick appears to have missed deadlines on three orders from local authorities, including replacing pipes, before the March 28 spill.
  • "Chocolate Remix," an Argentine woman, has turned the macho world of reggetón on its head, with hits celebrating lesbian sex and calling male members dispensable, reports the Guardian.
  • Climate activists are awaiting Trump's final call on whether to pull out of the Paris climate agreement at some point this month, reports the Guardian.

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