Monday, July 22, 2013

Venezuela-U.S. Relations Return to Chilly Normalcy

Venezuela has officially ended a process of rapprochement with the United States, citing a series of critical remarks by President Obama’s United Nations ambassador nominee Samantha Power.

On Friday, Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement announcing that it was ending an effort to restore diplomatic ties with the U.S. after the State Department endorsed Powers’ claim that the Venezuelan government was orchestrating a “crackdown on civil society.” The statement claimed that the remarks “contradicted the tone and content” of the message relayed by Secretary of State John Kerry to Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua in a brief June 5 meeting at the OAS General Assembly in Guatemala.

After stressing that Venezuela’s commitment to human rights guarantees had been vouched for by the United Nations “on many occasions,” the Foreign Ministry went on to allege that the international community “consistently expresses concern” over the policies of the U.S. Among the practices singled out in the statement were the inhumane treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, civilian deaths in drone attacks, the effort to capture NSA leaker Edward Snowden and the “violations of the right to privacy” that he denounced.

While Power’s remarks were Venezuela’s primary public reason for ending the rapprochement, there may have been other forces at work, particularly linked to President Nicolas Maduro’s asylum offer to Snowden. A Thursday report by Spanish newspaper ABC cited a source which claimed that, in a July 12 phone call, Kerry told Jaua that no plane carrying Snowden from Moscow would be allowed to cross over U.S. or NATO airspace. If Snowden were to make it to Venezuela, the source claimed that Kerry told Jaua that federal courts would file charges against Venezuelan officials with alleged ties to drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime, and all sales of gasoline and other refined-oil products to Venezuela would be halted.  

It’s worth pointing out, however, that ABC has a history of citing dubious sources. In January the paper prematurely reported Chavez’s imminent demise, and in October 2012 it claimed Fidel Castro was on his deathbed, a report which the Cuban leader directly denied in a public letter.

On Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that Kerry and Jaua spoke about Snowden by telephone on July 12, but claimed that the ultimatums reported by ABC were “completely false.”

News Briefs
  • Pope Francis travels to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil today, his first trip abroad as pontiff. The AP reports that more than one million people are expected to attend a mass on Rio’s Copacanaba beach for World Youth Day this evening. According to the New York Times, the pope is likely to endorse the demands of the recent wave of protests in the country, in keeping with his focus on social justice and an uneasy “truce” with liberation theology in Latin America. The Wall Street Journal notes that, due to increasing secularization and the growth of Evangelical Christianity in the country in recent decades, the pontiff will find a smaller audience in Brazil than in the past. A poll reported in Sunday’s Folha de Sao Paulo found that 57 percent of Brazilians identify as Catholics, compared with 75 percent in 1994.
  • After officials in Panama detained the former CIA station chief in Milan at the request of Italian authorities for several days, he was not turned over to them for the alleged kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in 2003. U.S. officials on Friday told the Washington Post he was released and had boarded a flight to the United States.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have announced that they have captured a former U.S. soldier, identified as Kevin Scott Sutay. In a statement on their website, the rebels claimed his June 20 capture in the south-central Guaviare Department was proof of the participation of “American soldiers and mercenaries in counterinsurgency operations” in Colombia. While the FARC maintain they have the right to hold him as a prisoner of war, they claimed they will release him as a gesture of their seriousness in participating in the peace talks in Havana. El Tiempo reports that, following the announcement, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley claimed that Sutay had “nothing to do with the military mission” of the U.S. in Colombia, and that he was only a retired marine on vacation. According to Bloomberg, locals in Guaviare say Sutay was attempting a solo hike through the rainforest, and that locals had advised him repeatedly against this.
  • In other Colombian conflict news, the government claims 19 soldiers were killed in two separate FARC ambushes over the weekend, which according to Reuters amounts to the government’s deadliest losses since talks with the FARC began. In a visit to Arauca Department on Sunday, where the bloodier of the two conflicts took place, Santos gave grim orders to troops there. “These are the instructions to our forces: don’t stop shooting for even a moment until we reach the end of this conflict,” Santos said.
  • The PAN, Mexico’s conservative opposition party, has announced that it intends to present a bill to reform the constitution to end the state monopoly on oil production on July 31, Proceso reports. Bloomberg notes that the bill preempts a planned proposal by President Enrique Peña Nieto, while El Universal reports that both reform initiatives are opposed by the PRD, which is against any privatization of state-owned oil company PEMEX.
  • Over the weekend, former Mexican President Vicente Fox hosted a conference in support of marijuana legalization in his home state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Reuters reports that he was optimistic that the country could legalize marijuana “within the next five years.” He was joined by PRD Congressman Fernando Belaunzaran and former Health Minister Julio Frenk, who argued in favor of a measure which would regulate the marijuana market in the country.
  • After its first pick dropped out of the presidential race last week, Chile’s right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party has selected a successor to challenge former President Michelle Bachelet: Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei. While Matthei has the support of the UDI, it is unclear whether the Renovacion Nacional (RN) party will officially back her as well, or whether they will split the conservative Alianza coalition and run their own candidate. According to Chilean news site The Clinic, congressional leaders in the RN are against supporting Matthei. Regardless, the selection ensures that for the first time, there will be two major female presidential candidates in the country. Reuters reports that the two have reportedly known each other since childhood, as their fathers were both air force generals. But while Bachelet’s father was a supporter of the overthrown President Salvador Allende, Matthei's father was a member of the military junta.
  • On Friday, Bolivian President Evo Morales apologized to the government of Brazil for a 2011 breach of diplomatic protocol in which authorities searched a Brazilian military aircraft assigned to Defense Minister Celso Amorim for drugs. The announcement was an interesting reversal of roles for Bolivia, which has demanded apologies from several European countries for their denial of airspace to Morales’ plane on suspicion that he was harboring Snowden aboard. 

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