Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Venezuela Sees Wave of Opposition Protests

Between student marches and demonstrations against the newsprint shortage, Venezuela has seen significant social unrest in recent days, with more protests planned for today. Civil society groups have deeply criticized the government’s handling of the demonstrations, which has included the use of firearms to control crowds and reliance on anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute protestors. 

The wave of unrest sparked last week in Caracas and the western states of Merida and Tachira, with university student groups organizing relatively small but high-profile protests. Their grievances varied, ranging from the state of insecurity in the country to the accelerating inflation and high cost of living. These student protests were fueled by the police crackdown in Tachira, where students held a rally against Governor Vielma Mora. El Universal reports that four demonstrators were detained by police for allegedly throwing rocks and damaging the front gate of the official governor’s residence, and Maduro called for “no mercy” against the suspects, whom he described as “fascists.”

Meanwhile, El Nacional reports that yesterday saw demonstrations in front of government offices in Caracas organized by the National Press Workers Union (SNTP) and National Journalist Association (CNP), which protested the shortage of dollars fueling a nationwide newsprint shortage.   El Universal notes that Alejandro Fleming, head of the Foreign Trade Commission, criticized the protests on national television later in the day. He did not respond directly to their demands, only promising that foreign currency would be made available to “economic sectors that really work to build a healthy economy.” More protests against the paper shortage are planned for next week.

Some 19 individuals have been arrested in these demonstrations, which have so far drawn crowds of only a few hundred. President Maduro has continued to characterize the protestors as extremist “coup seekers” attempting to undo his dialogue with moderate elements of the opposition. Reuters lends some weight to this claim, noting that opposition figure Henrique Capriles has distanced himself from the confrontational tactics of some protestors, while Leopoldo Lopez has actively endorsed them, calling for the creation of “a solid movement with irreverence and rebelliousness.”

In response to the arrests, a coalition of ten human rights organizations known as the “Forum for Life” has released a statement (available at advocacy group PROVEA’s website and picked up by the AP) framing the government’s response to the protests as a continuation of longstanding infringements of the right to peaceful protest in the country. According to the coalition, the use of tear gas and firearms against crowds, as well as the official reliance on anti-terrorism legislation to prosecute demonstrators, amount to human rights abuses and violate the Venezuelan constitution.

As El Nuevo Herald reports, more student protests are planned nationwide today to mark Venezuela’s National Youth Day, and opposition activists are hoping for a large turnout at anti-government demonstrations. However, the ruling PSUV has also organized rallies to commemorate the day, an illustration of the high degree of politicization in the country.

News Briefs
  • In other protest-related news in Venezuela, yesterday the country’s national communications commission released a statement warning radio, television and electronic media that coverage of “recent violent acts” was a potential violation of content restrictions. El Universal reports that is a reference to coverage of protests in general, though the statement is specifically aimed at the endorsement or encouragement of violence or disruption of “the public peace.”
  • Today’s New York Times features an article on the construction of new housing developments for Cuba’s “most dutiful:” families with links to the military or the Interior Ministry. For the paper, the gated housing complexes are indicators of government competition with the luxuries available to those in the private sector.
  • In a column for the New York Review of Books, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and Human Rights Watch founder Aryeh Neier blasts the recent shortening of Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term. Noting the prosecutor’s strong record of standing up to corruption and impunity in the Central American country’s rickety justice system, Neier claims that her early removal is an indicator that “entrenched forces” opposed to the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt  have won out. It is also, he argues, a missed opportunity for the country to improve its international reputation for lawlessness.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has suspended eight of his country's consuls in the United States for allegedly issuing illegal identity documents to Hondurans in the U.S., the AP reports. Honduran newspaper La Prensa broke the story on Monday, reporting that individuals had paid officials as much as $50 for the consular IDs.
  • Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica offers the most in-depth English coverage of the sentencing of ex-Guatemalan special forces officer Jorge Sosa to ten years in jail on Monday in a California court. He notes that while Rotella was only convicted of immigration fraud -- a crime that generally results in minimal jail time -- the judge ruled that his concealment of his participation in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre warranted harsh sentencing.
  • While a long-awaited bill to decriminalize marijuana in Mexico City has yet to be presented to the city’s Legislative Assembly for debate, it received a boost this week from four ex-presidents in the region, all members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. As Animal Politico and Mexican news agency Notimex reported yesterday, Colombia’s Cesar Gaviria, Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Chile’s Ricardo Lagos signed a public letter to Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, congratulating him for his “dedication and leadership” shown in promoting a wider debate on drug policy. As Spain’s El Pais points out, the presidents also expressed their “full faith” that the bill would move forward, and stressed that the “imminent discussion” of its content would put the city at the head of the global debate on the issue.
  • Just as the government of the Dominican Republic has begun a campaign educating its largely Haitian immigrant population on ways to obtain legal documentation in the country, Haitian officials have announced the creation of a new program to register its migrants abroad as well. Baptiste Saint-Cyr, head of Haiti's National Identification Office, told reporters that the $2.5 million project will begin next month, and will primarily target the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
  • Earlier this week, local press reports indicated that Colombian lawmakers have sought to clarify the terms of the landmark 2012 transitional justice law known as the Legal Framework for Peace to the United States government, over concerns that a potential amnesty for FARC rebels could mean reductions in U.S. aid. In response to this, Senate President Juan Fernando Cristo has rejected these suggestions, arguing that his country has a right to arrange its own post-conflict political landscape without foreign intervention.
  • In spite of previous plans to hold a referendum to recall embattled Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro on March 2, electoral officials have been forced to delay the vote because the funding needed to organize it had not been allocated in time. Petro and his supporters have criticized the postponement as an attempt to facilitate his removal from office. As Semana notes, the mayor has been counting on a demonstration of popular support in the polls to take place before his dismissal could take effect, potentially undermining it.