Friday, September 27, 2013

Venezuela’s ‘Birther’ Scandal Picks Up Steam

Immediately after Venezuela’s April elections, fringe elements of the opposition in the country began to make use of a tactic famously put to use during the last U.S.  election cycle: questioning the birthplace of the president. While conspiracy theories that President Nicolas Maduro was in fact born in Colombia have existed for some time, Venezuela’s “birther” movement has become emboldened by mixed messages from the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.  As Juan Nagel wrote for Foreign Policy last month:
Maduro has responded by asserting he was born in the Los Chuagarmos district of Caracas. The foreign minister said he was born in El Valle. Adding to that, but not really helping, is the governor of Táchira state, hundreds of kilometers west of Caracas and bordering Colombia, who says that he was born there. Fueling the controversy is the fact that Maduro's official Venezuelan birth certificate has never been produced. 
The scandal hit fever pitch in the last few days when Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, presented what he claimed was Maduro's Colombian birth certificate. The Colombian Civil Registry has denied the document's authenticity, but this has done little to dispel the doubts.
The Venezuelan birther movement continued to gain momentum in late July, when opposition leader Henrique Capriles joined its ranks and called on the president to address growing doubt about his birthplace. Now, Capriles has taken it one step further. Ultimas Noticias reports that in a televised statement yesterday, he showed his own birth certificate, and called on the president to do the same.

“Here I have my birth certificate, where is the certificate of Maduro? They do not only steal an election but violate the Constitution as well,” said Capriles, referring to the constitution’s requirement for the president to be a Venezuelan citizen. So far Maduro has not responded.

Whether Capriles truly believes the conspiracy theories about Maduro’s birthplace is doubtful. Regardless, it is clear that he sees a political advantage to supplementing his attacks on Maduro’s record on corruption, crime and economic management by questioning the authenticity of the president’s Venezuelan identity. 

The test of the opposition’s political strategy will likely come in municipal elections on December 8. As David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights note, the opposition is framing the local elections as a kind of popular referendum on the Maduro administration. Although the government is attempting to downplay this, analysts believe his United Socialist Party (PSUV) has a good chance of losing the national popular vote even if it wind most win most municipalities.  This could be a huge moral victory for Capriles, potentially setting him up to lead a recall referendum against Maduro in two years.

News Briefs
  • On Thursday, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic issued an extremely controversial ruling that strips citizenship from individuals born to migrants who entered the country illegally. The Court has given electoral authorities a year to come up with a list of the tens of thousands of individuals who will have their citizenship revoked. The AP notes that the ruling affects mostly individuals of Haitian descent, and is bound to raise tensions with the neighboring country.
  • Amid mounting evidence that Syrian government forces were responsible for gas attacks on its own people, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced that he spoke with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad  via telephone yesterday.  El Nacional reports that Maduro said he assured Assad that “the Venezuelan people support and accompny the Syrian people in their battle with terrorist armies financed by the U.S. and the West.” Maduro also said that a high-level delegation of Syrian officials is set to visit Latin America in the coming weeks.
  • A new Gallup poll in Honduras shows the gap between the two leading candidates in the presidential race is narrowing ahead of November elections. According to the survey, center-left candidate Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party has a slim lead over the National Party’s Juan Hernandez, with 29 compared to 27 percent. Previous polls had put Hernandez in third place, with only 18 percent of the vote.
  • Ricardo Soberon, the Peruvian drug czar who was dismissed for opposing an aggressive coca crop eradication program, has issued a scathing critique of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s approach to drug policy. In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Soberon characterized the Humala administration as marked by “weakness.” He also accused the government of complicity with illicit coca cultivation, saying: “The problem exists because there is a complicity and corruption at various levels that allow planting to continue.”
  • The Cuban government has expanded the list of private sector jobs allowed in the country, part of ongoing economic reforms on the island. Among the newly-allowed private occupations are agricultural vendors, real estate agents and telecommunications salespeople.
  • The Guardian profiles an experimental approach to reducing violent crime in Brazil’s federal district. Under a new law, toy and replica guns will be banned from Brasilia starting next year. Beginning in 2014, shops selling fake guns will face hefty fines, be closed for 30 days or even lose their license.
  • After the two special prisons that Chile uses to house military human rights abusers of the dictatorship era came under fire recently, President Sebastian Piñera has officially ordered the closure of one of them. According to La Tercera, the Cordillera prison facility (the most comfortable of the two) will be closed, and its inmates will be transferred to the Punta Peuco prison in Santiago.
  • The New York Times covers the attempts to prosecute Ray E. Davis, a former U.S. Navy captain accused of involvement in the killings of two American citizens in the wake of Chile’s 1973 military coup. After years of court battles by the families of the victims, and after a Chilean judge requested the U.S. to extradite Davis, records show that he had been living in a Chilean nursing home all along, and in fact recently passed away.



  • The U.S. Congress has passed a measure intended to reform the Organization of American States (OAS), the text of which gives the State Department 180 days to submit a multiyear plan which would encourage the OAS to adopt a “results-based budgeting process.” It will now go to the president’s desk to be signed. The bill comes several months after the OAS -- more specifically, the Inter-American human rights system -- faced an aggressive reform push from ALBA bloc countries, illustrating the growing consensus for OAS reform across the political spectrum in the hemisphere. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told EFE that he believes the bill will help build an “invigorated OAS, which advances representative democracy and  significant economic growth by promoting and defending peace, security, the rule of law and human rights in the Americas.”