Monday, February 25, 2019

Venezuela's aid clashes kill at least four (Feb. 25, 2019)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro successfully blocked an attempt by opposition challenger Juan Guaidó -- recognized as the country's legitimate leader by a swathe of the international community -- to bring shipments of humanitarian aid across Venezuelan borders at several different points. But images volunteers lugging boxes of aid repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets fired by security forces backed by pro-government paramilitary groups raise the question of who won the weekend's battle. 

At least four people were reported dead and hundreds injured. Witnesses reported being fired at with bullets and buckshot. Foro Penal reported that there were 58 people injured by bullets, nine people are disappeared, and 32 people were detained in relation to the aid showdown. Colombian authorities reported at least 285 wounded. At least three trucks loaded with aid caught fire, it's not clear how. Opposition lawmakers said they were torched by security forces.

At least 60 border guards deserted their posts and fled into Colombia, but it was a far cry from the mass defections the opposition hoped might permit aid to pass through. Members of security forces who escaped said they are under considerable pressure and their families are under threat if they don't follow orders. Guaidó said today that at least 160 military and police officer had fled so far. And thousands of Venezuelan aid volunteers are now stranded out of their country after Colombia and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations.

Most of the attention was focused on the Colombian border, but the worst violence by far was at the Brazilian border, where demonstrators attempted to close off roads to stop security forces, reports the Guardian. On Friday a military convoy opened fire on indigenous protesters there, killing one person. (See Friday's briefs.) The opposition-led National Assembly said eight people were killed in Santa Elena de Uairén, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Guaidó snuck across the Venezuelan border with Colombia on Friday, it is now not clear whether he will be able to return. He met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence today in Bogotá, where the Lima Group held a meeting. Pence said the U.S. is "100 percent" behind Guaidó, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Guaidó announced that Venezuela formally joined the regional group opposed to Maduro. And further steps are expected to be announced later today.

The clashes mark a turning point in the crisis, and could be used to support more forceful international reactions. In the wake of Saturday's failure to bring in aid, the opposition led by Guaidó has called on the international community to contemplate military intervention. "The events of today oblige me to take a decision," Guaidó said on Twitter on Sunday, "to formally propose to the international community that we should keep all options open to achieve the liberation of our homeland." On Saturday evening, the No. 1 world-wide trending topic on Twitter was #IntervencionMilitarYa.

However the European Union, Spain, Chile, Peru adamantly oppose such a step and called for diplomatic solutions. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on Venezuelans to avoid the temptation of military force.

Food aid has become a central issue in Venezuela's legitimacy battle, though much criticized by aid organizations wary of politicizing desperately needed supplies. In the long run, democracy and food sufficiency are intrinsically linked, argues Amy Erica Smith in Vox. Authoritarian regimes are more likely to simply ignore hunger, or abuse it with food clientelism, as has occurred under Maduro, she writes.

More from Venezuela
  • Venezuela's devastation is also ecological -- the government has exploited the mineral rich Orinoco area with foreign companies, with grave social and environmental consequences. (Letras Libres)
News Briefs

  • Results on a constitutional referendum in Cuba are expected later today. Citizens voted yesterday on a new constitution that has proved divisive -- offering greater freedoms while hewing to a communist system, reports Al Jazeera. Turn out was particularly high, and campaigning both in favor and against were stronger than in the past, reports the Miami Herald. Ratification is expected, but likely won't be as high as the 97.6 percent the current constitution obtained. Nonetheless, the final tallies don't really matter, say activists who denounced government crackdowns against "no" campaigners.
  • Debate has been particularly strong on the island, which is not known for political freedom. Religious conservatives have led in criticizing the draft, demonstrating a growing power, reports NPR. Evangelicals particularly mobilized against language that could have permitted gay marriage, successfully derailing that part of the initiative, reports the Guardian.
  • An amnesty bill for perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Guatemala has provoked outrage among human rights defenders. The proposal before lawmakers this week would immediately free more than 30 convicts, mostly former military officers, and invalidate current and future trials for crimes committed during the country's long civil war. It is part of a growing backlash against the trials of former wartime military officials and the aggressive investigations of corruption by political, military and business elites, reports the Washington Post. (See last Tuesday's briefs, and Feb. 13's.)
  • Guatemalans vote for president in June this year. So far three women are leading in the preliminary polls:  Sandra Torres (17 percent), Thelma Aldana (10 percent), y Zury Ríos (7 percent). Torres and Ríos have a long political track record, but El Periódico emphasizes former prosecutor general Thelma Aldana's potential for growth, given her level of support without having formally declared her candidacy.
  • But the election will be highly uncertain, with the vast majority of voters expressing indifference to existing political parties, notes Edgar Gutierrez in El Periódico.
Regional Relations
  • With far less fanfare than China, Turkey is making incursions in Latin America -- economically and culturally. In some cases Turkey offers an escape from the China-US binary, and in others, like Venezuela, the possibility to evade mounting international sanctions, reports Ozy.
  • Brazilian mining giant Vale SA employees and contracted safety inspectors knew months ago about dangerous conditions at the Brumadinho tailings dam, that collapsed in January and killed over 300 people. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Colombian authorities leveled drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's former home in Medellín. City authorities are planning a memorial park to honor the victims of his drug cartel’s crimes in the spot the building occupied. It's part of a grappling with the country's painful past and contemporary narco-legend tourism draws, reports the New York Times.
  • An Argentine businessman has accused corruption prosecutor Carlos Stornelli of demanding $300,000, via an intermediary, to keep him out of the headline grabbing "Cuadernos de la Corrupción" case. The investigation into the intermediary, Marcelo D'Alessio threatens to involve high levels of the Argentine federal judiciary and government officials, report Página 12 and Cohete a la Luna.
  • Photojournalists covering protests in Argentina say they are increasingly targeted by security forces repressing demonstrations, reports Página 12.
  • La abuela de las berenjenas: A recent image taken by Bernardino Ávila became an instant icon -- an elderly lady bending down to pick up eggplants scattered by police breaking up a demonstration by horticultural growers. (Página 12)

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...


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