Thursday, February 13, 2014

Opposition, Govt Exchange Blame for Violence in Venezuela Protests

Yesterday, National Youth Day in Venezuela, a number of student marches were organized throughout the country, convened by both the opposition and government supporters. According to local human rights group PROVEA, these protests were largely peaceful until yesterday afternoon, when clashes broke out between protesters and police, as well as between pro- and anti-government groups.

Things were particularly tense in Caracas, and at least three people were killed in the resulting violence. Some 26 others were wounded, and more than 70 were detained by authorities, according to official figures. 

El Nacional reports that opposition student groups demonstrated outside the attorney general’s office, demanding the release of their peers who had been arrested in previous protests last week. When some began throwing stones at police and the building’s windows, the situation escalated further.  Witnesses told the paper that unidentified men began firing into the crowd, and that it was unclear whether they were police or not. One student was killed, and at least three others were treated for gunshot wounds at a nearby hospital.  

Also killed during the clash in front of the Attorney General’s office yesterday afternoon was a 40 year-old off-duty police officer, who has also been identified as a member of one of the various militant Chavista groups based in Caracas’ 23 de Enero neighborhood. In a statement yesterday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello called his death “an act of the fascist right.”

Protests continued throughout the afternoon and evening, and another student was shot and killed in protests in the wealthy neighborhood of Chacao.

Sifting through the media reports on yesterday’s demonstrations is made difficult by conflicting accounts of the violence. As occurred following the protests in the wake of presidential elections last April, opposition members and government supporters are blaming each other for the clashes, with both sides posting videos and photos online to support their cases.  

The opposition is focusing blame on the Chavista collectives. Members of these organizations are frequently armed, and their 23 de Enero stronghold has been described by critics as a “micro-state” that is largely outside of state control. Pointing to the deaths in Caracas, and to similar intimidation tactics used by vigilantes in the city of Merida, the opposition is clamoring for the government to crack down on them.

The government, for its part, blames hard-line members of the opposition for fueling violent and confrontational demonstrations. Opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has emerged as the primary leader of the protests, and has been open about his wish to drive President Nicolas Maduro out of power. In an interview with Reuters yesterday, Lopez stressed that he supports peaceful protest only, but admitted that his hope was that the mobilizations would force Maduro to resign. As the AP notes, Lopez’s approach differs from the more conciliatory tactics of opposition leader and Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles, and has been interpreted by many as a challenge to Capriles’ “meek leadership.”

At the same time, however, Lopez’s remarks have added fuel to the government’s attempts to frame him as a “coup-seeking” destabilizing force. As El Universal reports, last night a Caracas judge ordered Lopez’s arrest on a laundry list of charges, ranging from conspiracy and incitement to commit crimes to public intimidation and terrorism.

News Briefs
  • After months of delays, Mexico City’s marijuana decriminalization bill will finally be presented to the city’s Legislative Assembly today. While its specifics remain unclear, press reports suggest it will strengthen a 2009 federal law which decriminalized the possession of up to 5 grams of marijuana, allowing police to prioritize more violent crimes over the small-scale marijuana dealing. Vanguardia columnist Javier Risco has more on what the bill will and will not include, noting that while it aims to create offices around the city tasked with giving information on the drug’s potential health effects  from a harm reduction perspective, these will not provide safe access to the drug, as initially reported.
  • The New York Times looks at the impact that lawlessness in Honduras has had on land conservation efforts in the country, which are being undone by illegal logging, cattle ranching and land speculation.
  • Owing to his recent criticism of Chilean President-elect Michelle Bachelet over her recent expression of support for the Pacific Alliance trade bloc, Bolivian President Evo Morales was surprised to have received an invitation to her inauguration ceremony, La Razon reported yesterday. Morales did not provide a definitive answer on whether he would attend the ceremony or not, but said he would consider it.  
  • The AP has a good profile of widespread mistrust of authorities in Mexico, highlighting residents’ unease in the town of Yautepec, Morelos over a recent surge of state police. While law enforcement officers are ostensibly there to fight a wave of kidnappings in the area, locals say they have no confidence in their ability to initiate investigations against those responsible.
  • Following his visit to Washington DC to meet with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Semana has an interview with Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez. The official told the magazine he was “optimistic” about his meeting, saying that he was confident that he sufficiently explained the constitutional basis for his order to remove Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro from office last year.
  • The largest social movement in Latin America, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, held a massive protest in the country’s capital yesterday. The AP reports that some 15,000 members of the group flooded the streets of Brasilia and disrupted government offices to demand that officials distribute unused land to landless farmers. According to Estadão, President Dilma Rousseff is expected to meet with leaders of the movement this morning.
  • Brazilian daily O Globo reports that police in Rio de Janeiro are investigating claims that protesters in the city have received money from unidentified political parties and organizations in order to provoke violence during demonstrations. Yesterday, the defense attorney for an individual accused of lighting a firecracker that killed a local reporter covering protests last week told journalists that some protesters receive as much as $75 for inciting violence and vandalism in protests.
  • Following the Saturday murder of Haitian human rights activist Daniel Dorsinvil and his wife, local and international rights groups are calling on authorities to further investigate the double homicide. Dorsinvil was the general coordinator of a coalition of major human rights organizations in the country, and many suspect that his killing was political.
  • The Associated Press’s Frank Bajak reports on the “purgatory” in which convicted foreign drug mules often find themselves trapped in Peru. While many are released from prison early, they are prevented from leaving the country until they pay hefty fines and go through a complex bureaucratic maze, a process which can leave them stranded for years.