Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Venezuela’s Maduro Gets Decree Powers

The Venezuelan National Assembly has approved a bill (.pdf) which grants President Nicolas Maduro the authority to sidestep the legislative process and pass certain laws by decree for a 12-month period.  The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) says the measure is necessary to allow the president to lead an anti-corruption campaign and overcome what Maduro calls an opposition-led “economic war” in the country.

The Washington Post notes that the PSUV obtained the necessary 99 votes to pass the bill only after an opposition legislator facing corruption and embezzlement charges was stripped of her seat. The congresswoman is Maria Aranguren, who ran on a PSUV ticket but distanced herself from the party in 2012. Her alternate, Carlos Flores, is still aligned with the PSUV and provided the key 99th vote for the proposal.

Taking advantage of “Leyes Habilitantes” was a favorite maneuver of Maduro’s deceased predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who received decree powers four times during his presidency. But this tactic is not a new feature of Venezuela’s democracy, nor is it exclusive to the PSUV. As the AFP reports, every Venezuelan president of the last 40 years has been granted temporary authority to rule by decree. In remarks on the Assembly floor yesterday, independent Congressman Hernan Nuñez -- formerly of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) -- pointed out that ex-presidents Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez made use of the measure as well.

It is a safe bet, however, that Maduro will be invoking special powers in unique and controversial ways. According to El Universal, the president has said he will use the authorization to expand price controls, rein in speculation and limit private profit margins to between 15 and 30 percent. The government has called the bill a necessary move to “shield the new internal economic order of transition to socialism.” Noticias24 reports that in a press conference yesterday, Maduro cautioned that this model still “includes economic freedom in a variety of activities.”  State-run daily El Correo del Orinoco notes that Maduro has also promised a “shattering offense against corruption beginning in January 2014.”

Despite the government’s claims, a statement released by the opposition MUD coalition asserts that Maduro’s real intention is to “deepen political persecution and criminalize the opposition’s constitutionally legal sources of finance.”

Rafael Uzcategui of the Caracas-based human rights group PROVEA does not dispute the need for the government to crack down on corruption, but claims that granting decree powers to the executive is detrimental to democracy. He writes: “It is paradoxical that a government which promotes participatory democracy constantly needs to govern by sidestepping broad mechanisms for debate and democratic inclusion.”

Many political analysts (see the FT and Reuters) have interpreted Maduro’s economic measures as an attempt to boost support for the PSUV ahead of December 8 local elections, which both the government and opposition hope to use as a kind of referendum on the president’s first year in office. Venezuela politics expert David Smilde, however, has argued that Maduro actually firmly believes in the “economic war” narrative. Regardless, in an interview yesterday with Chicago radio station WBEZ’s Worldview, Smilde claims that continued enforcement of strict price controls will be virtually impossible in the long term. He contends that eventually the administration will have to devalue the currency and address its budget deficit, moves which Maduro has been avoiding so far because they will be highly unpopular.


News Briefs
  • In other Venezuela corruption news, on Monday a former official with the government-controlled Economic and Social Development Bank of Venezuela pleaded guilty to charges that she accepted bribes to direct business to a New York broker. The NYT notes that the fact that the former executive, Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez de Hernandez, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors suggests more revelations about corruption at the bank will be forthcoming.
  • Just weeks before a likely Senate vote on Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill, El Pais reports that the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has issued a statement expressing “concern” that the law violates international drug control conventions. INCB President Raymond Yans also told reporters the body was concerned that the law could have “serious consequences for public health, particularly for youth.”
  • According to Salvadoran news site El Faro, Defense Minister David Munguia Payes was called to the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber for the second time to provide testimony on a case filed by children of assassinated and disappeared dissidents. Once again, no one from the armed forces presented themselves to provide comment on the case, which gained international attention following last week’s attack on Pro-Busqueda, the organization representing the plaintiffs.
  • Yesterday, La Prensa Libre reported that the defense lawyers of Guatemalan ex-dictator Rios Montt tried to have judges throw out his trial on genocide charges on the grounds that a separate court had reverted the case to an earlier point. The request was denied and the January 5, 2015 date for the trial will stand.
  • In the New York Review of Books, Steven Kinzer offers a detailed account of Guatemala’s democratic development. While plenty of analysts have bemoaned a lack of progress on human rights in Guatemala, Kinzer claims that the Rios Montt trial, the publication of an official archive detailing past abuses and the September commemoration of ex- President Jacobo Arbenz’s birthday all offer significant hope for the country’s future.
  • Following the Colombian government’s decision to appoint peace negotiator Luis Carlos Villegas as the new ambassador to the United States, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has replaced him with Nigeria Renteria, the negotiating team’s first female member. Newspaper El Espectador has a profile of Renteria, an Afro-Colombian woman who has until now served as the government’s top advisor on gender equality.
  • In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs discussed the changes that are occurring in U.S.-Mexico relations under President Enrique Peña Nieto. The diplomat claimed that this shift is accompanied by U.S. security funds increasingly going towards strengthening judicial institutions and communities.
  • Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has released a new report on the state of the country’s prisons. CNDH researchers found that the number of facilities run by inmates has jumped from 60 to 65 in the past year, and gave the overall administration of penal facilities a rating of 5.68 points on a 10 point scale. At the report’s release, CNDH President Raul Plascencia also told journalists that the number of killings, prison riots, escapes and other incidents has increased, rising to 119 so far this year, up from 52 for all of 2011.
  • Ahead of Honduras’ November 24 presidential election, RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics has a useful overview of the country’s “fairly fragile” voting system.  The country’s electoral court has implemented a new system of compiling vote tallies, requiring local voting centers to scan and submit results to election officials in the capital via an internet or telephone connection. However, some 500 voting centers lack electricity or internet, meaning that these votes will be counted by hand a week later in Tegucigalpa.   
  • The newly-appointed figures in Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s cabinet, Economic Minister Axel Kicillof and cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, are due to be sworn in today, Telam reports. Reuters claims that the cabinet picks “confirmed a deepening of Argentina's left-leaning economic model.”