Ahead of planned protests today, yesterday Venezuelan authorities raided the offices of opposition party Voluntad Popular (VP) in their continued search for its leader, Leopoldo Lopez. The opposition figure has managed to evade law enforcement despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest on charges of inciting violence in recent demonstrations.
Yesterday afternoon, VP members announced that their headquarters had been raided by armed military intelligence officers looking for Lopez. The officers allegedly seized mobile phones, computers and other electronic equipment. The party released footage from an alleged security camera which shows intelligence agents pointing guns at its members and breaking down a door. The authenticity of the video has not been confirmed, but Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta claims that a broken door in the Voluntad Popular corroborates the video.
Lopez remains at large, but most likely not for long. He has organized an anti-government rally to be held today in Caracas, and has promised to attend and surrender himself to authorities at the Interior and Justice Ministry. The move puts the government in a difficult position. Arresting Lopez would create a media spectacle, fueling his narrative of being unjustly accused while providing the opposition with a martyr to unite behind, as David Smilde has pointed out.
By not doing so, however, President Nicolas Maduro might look weak to his base. The Chavista camp is already showing cracks, and the president cannot run the risk of losing his core supporters to a stronger rival within the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV). His dismissal of three U.S. consular officials -- which was confirmed by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua yesterday -- is a classic base-rallying move, one which the government has used on similar occasions in the past.
Meanwhile, the government has come under increasing pressure by civil society and the opposition to investigate the student deaths which occurred during the February 12 demonstrations. A compilation of videos and photos of clashes that day by Ultimas Noticias shows apparent civilians and plainclothes Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) agents opening fire on protestors. In a televised national address on Sunday, Maduro said that the officers had disobeyed orders by engaging with protestors, and at least one SEBIN agent has been arrested. Nevertheless, critics maintain that Maduro has not adequately responded to the alleged disobedience, and have called on him to prosecute all those involved.
As with last week’s protests, government supporters have organized parallel marches to take place today in Caracas. El Nacional reports that workers of the state oil company PDVSA will be holding a march at roughly the same time as the opposition demonstration, raising the potential for clashes between the opposing groups.
- The United States, for its part, has denied Maduro’s allegations that Washington has been conspiring with opposition figures and student leaders against his government. In remarks to the press yesterday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki called the accusations “baseless and false.” This comes on the heels of a Saturday statement by Secretary of State John Kerry, who voiced “deep concern” over rising tensions in the country.
- La Tercera has an interesting roundup of reactions to Venezuela’s protests among Latin American leaders, noting that the region’s heads of state -- as well as OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza -- have preferred offered a more muted response to the violence than leaders elsewhere. One notable exception is Chilean president-elect Michelle Bachelet, who has taken to her Twitter account to condemn Maduro’s response to demonstrations and call for a referendum in the country. (Edit: the account, which has fooled more than one journalist now, is fake)
- Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon spoke yesterday on Semana magazine’s recent investigation revealing a corruption ring in the country’s armed forces, promising “zero tolerance for corruption.” However, his speech earned criticism from Semana and La Silla Vacia, which both pointed to a lack of concrete plan to address the damning evidence presented against high-level officers. El Tiempo reports that President Santos has promised to take further action against corruption in the army, and is expected to announce a major shuffle of the armed forces’ command later today.
- In a column for El Espectador, Rodrigo Uprimny of Bogota-based human rights group Dejusticia writes a critical take on the government’s decision to resume aerial coca fumigation this week after a four month suspension of the practice. Pointing to evidence that aerial spraying is largely ineffective and harmful to the health of rural residents, Uprminy also suggests that it endangers the legitimacy of the state, asking: “What respect can local populations have for a state that pollutes their land and water, affecting their health and destroying their sources of income, without clearly offering alternatives?”
- The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff looks at the intersection of energy policy, indigenous rights and environmentalism in Ecuador, all issues that have come to a head in the wake of President Rafael Correa’s decision to end restrictions on oil drilling Yasuni National Park.
- The Cuban government has been forced to suspend consular activities in the United States after M&T Bank stopped offering its services. The BBC reports that Cuban authorities blamed the development on the difficulties of maneuvering around the U.S. embargo, “ïn spite of huge efforts made.”
- Argentine President Cristina Fernandez saw a long-awaited victory yesterday in her battle with media giant Clarin. On Monday, the country’s media regulation body gave final approval to Clarin’s plan to break up its holdings into six parts. The media group now has 30 days to present buyers of these parts for the government’s approval.
- Argentine Defense Minister Agustin Rossi is catching flak from other members of President Fernandez’s cabinet over recent remarks on the state of drug trafficking in the Southern Cone nation. As Clarin reports, on Friday Rossi claimed that the country had become a country of “production” of illicit drugs, pointing to recent growth of the drug trade in the northeast province of Santa Fe. However, La Nacion reports that Security Minister Sergio Berni, whose office is responsible for counter-narcotics operations, has strongly objected to the characterization.
- As lawmakers in Mexico debate an ambitious bill to give states more control over their own drug policies, Brazil’s Senate has begun debate over a controversial marijuana initiative as well. Yesterday, Senator Cristovam Buarque submitted a bill to the Senate Human Rights Committee that would regulate the recreational and medicinal use of the drug after an online petition gained over 20,000 signatures in just one week. According to O Globo, the text of the bill is similar to that of Uruguay’s recently-passed marijuana law, and would allow home cultivation of the drug as well as its commercial growth and sale.
- In São Paulo, G1 reports that another phase of trials has begun into the role of guards in the Carandiru prison massacre that left 111 inmates dead over 20 years ago. As the BBC notes, this is the third of four phases in the trial, one for each of the four floors where the massacre took place. It follows an August ruling which sentenced 25 policemen to 624 years in prison each for their part in the killings, although by law they can each serve no more than 30.