Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Attempted Dialogue Falls Through in Venezuela

After Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made headlines over the weekend for apparently offering to dialogue with Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader declined to participate yesterday, saying he did not want to help Maudro “clean up his image.”

Much was made of Maduro’s invitation for Capriles to discuss their “differences and points of agreement” in a Monday meeting, and a number of media outlets framed the offer as a potential turning point for the unrest that has beset Venezuela in recent weeks.

However, by Sunday it became clear that Capriles was considering pulling out of the meeting, after he announced that he was consulting with his support base over his attendance. As El Universal reports, he made his rejection of the meeting known in a press conference yesterday afternoon. Showing images of alleged repression of opposition protests in recent days by security forces, the Miranda state governor told reporters he could not justify going to the presidential palace while the crackdown continued. “I will not be the one to clean up the image of Nicolas Maduro in [the presidential palace]. That's what they want, for me to go today; they offer their hand as if the country was in complete normalcy,” he said.

There was likely a political calculus behind his decision as well. Monday’s meeting was not exclusively with Maduro, but instead part a semi-regular conference of all state governors with the executive branch, known as “Federal Government Councils.” There was, after all, little chance that Maduro would allow the opposition leader to dictate the agenda, and by attending Capriles risked drawing the ire of more radical elements of the opposition. Even after the president announced a separate event billed as a “National Peace Conference,” to be held on Wednesday, it is unclear how it would incorporate opposition demands. 

Meanwhile, protests continue throughout the country. Reuters reports that the death toll from the demonstrations has risen to 13, while El Nacional claims it is at 15 and alleges that that nine of these were opposition protestors  killed by “security forces or paramilitary groups linked to officials.”

As protests have gone on, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) has also started to show internal cracks. Jose Vielma Mora, the PSUV governor of western Tachira state -- which has been hit hard by demonstrations and roadblocks -- told reporters he opposed the government’s use of force against protestors and supported the release of opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Vielma is a longtime Chavista, and participated in Chavez’s failed 1992 coup.

Writing for opposition blog Caracas Chronicles, Emiliana Duarte offers a look at the protests in Tachira state capital San Cristobal. Especially interesting is her assessment of the changing dynamic of the makeshift barricades that have sprung up around the city. While most were created by opposition students and residents drawing attention to their cause, Duarte notes that many have been taken over by “clever opportunists” who charge fees to those seeking to pass by them.

While many analysts have compared the situation in Venezuela with current events in Ukraine, The New York Times’ William Neuman draws parallels with last year’s protests in Brazil. According to the paper, the major difference between these two is that while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced concrete policy changes, Maduro has “largely refused to acknowledge [demonstrators’] complaints, focusing instead on violence linked to the unrest.”  However, yesterday saw some progress on that front, with the government unveiling a new currency exchange platform that is aimed at tackling rampant shortages, one of the main grievances of demonstrators.

News Briefs
  • U.S. national security news site Defense One profiles Zello, the smartphone app helping to fuel Venezuela's protests. The app allows users to communicate in a manner similar to Nextel’s push-to-talk service, and has become widely popular among protesters in Venezuela. In response, the government blocked the app as well as its website, but Zello’s U.S. developers swiftly released a new version that is functional and still available for download in the country.
  • At least seven U.S. federal district courts have filed charges against captured Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. However, the government of Mexico has officially charged El Chapo with cocaine trafficking, making it unlikely that he will be extradited to the United States any time soon. Yesterday the drug cartel leader’s lawyers filed an injunction to block his potential extradition, which has been granted by a Mexican judge.
  • While many local residents in Michoacan hailed the emergence of so-called “self-defense” groups as a grassroots response to drug-fueled violence in the country, distrust in these organizations -- many of which now have access to federal recognition -- is growing. The NYT profiles wary reactions to the vigilantes among farmers and landowners in Mexico’s Tierra Caliente region, noting alleged links between some among their ranks and the very criminal groups they claim to fight.
  • The Washington Post asks who the most-wanted drug trafficker is following El Chapo’s arrest, offering a list of potential names among the top figures in the country’s criminal underworld. Citing recent remarks from Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Milenio reports that the next on the list is El Chapo’s main partner in the Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced a cabinet shakeup yesterday, naming Housing Minister Rene Cornejo as his administration’s fifth prime minister since he took office. Cornejo replaces Cesar Villanueva, who resigned following a highly public spat with First Lady Nadine Heredia and Finance Minister Luis Miguel Castilla. Last week Villanueva said that the government was considering a raise in the minimum wage,  which the other two vigorously denied.
  • On Sunday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his personal email account had been hacked by unknown elements, which he claimed was part of an attempt to slander him as he runs for a second term ahead of presidential elections in May. The announcement confirms a report last week by El Tiempo, which claimed that some of the emails referenced payment of his daughter’s school tuition, as well as plans to purchase a work of art (which ultimately fell through).
  • While it remains the country with the highest homicide rate on the planet, Honduras appears to be making progress against violence in the country, according to statistics released earlier this month by the independent Violence Observatory of National Autonomous University (UNAH). The Observatory found that Honduras’ murder rate last year was roughly 80 per 100,000, down from 85 per 100,000 in 2012 and 92 per 100,000 the year before. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, Honduran Security Secretary Aruturo Corrales has said the figure is even lower, and responded to critics by threatening to create a new, “official” Observatory under his office.
  • Mexican news site Animal Politico features an interesting back-and-forth on the recent proposals to change Mexico’s marijuana laws submitted at both the local (in Mexico City) and federal level. Security analyst Alejandro Hope describes the current push as guided by a “manual on how not to legalize marijuana,” criticizing the way both bills have been presented as well as their allegedly vague language. According to him, this is a recipe for disaster, and has only fueled rejection of the measures among politicians and confusion among the general public. In response, legal expert Alejandro Madrazo of the CIDE research center offers a point-by-point rebuttal of Hope’s critiques. Madrazo argues that, while the bills are far from perfect, they are the best available option in the country’s current political climate. He is also confident that at least the Mexico City measure will gain traction, and asserts that controversial legislation always meets initial opposition before triggering a deeper debate.
  • The European Union and government of Brazil have announced an agreement to construct an undersea communications cable which will connect the northeast Brazilian city of Fortaleza with Lisbon, Portugal. In remarks at a conference in Brussels yesterday, President Rousseff applauded the agreement as a move to "guarantee the neutrality" of the Internet, as it will help reduce her country’s reliance on U.S. undersea cables (a sensitive issue in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal).