Thursday, February 20, 2014

Venezuela Violence Persists After Lopez’s Arrest

Following the dramatic arrest of Venzeulan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez on Tuesday, protests continued to across major cities in the country yesterday.

In Caracas, supporters of Lopez held a rally in front of the Palace of Justice, where he was scheduled to appear in court. However, at the last minute his attorney said the trial had been moved to a military jail. El Universal reports that a judge has ordered Lopez to be held under preliminary detention for 45 days while prosecutors investigate his responsibility for recent violent protests. If convicted, Lopez could face up to 10 years in prison.

There are also reports (see El Nacional and The Guardian) of clashes breaking out last night between student protesters and National Guard troops in certain pockets of Caracas.

Unrest has also spread to other cities in the country. At least eight people were reportedly shot in Tuesday protests in the central city of Valencia, including local beauty queen Genesis Carmona, whose death has made international headlines.  The western city of San Cristobal saw similarly chaotic scenes yesterday, with roadblocks set up across the city and reports of violent struggles between opposition and government supporters.

Meanwhile, Lopez’s political star continues to rise. As the Wall Street Journal notes, his high profile in recent weeks has eclipsed that of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who has favored a less confrontational approach to opposing the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Interestingly, there is a chance that Lopez’s rise is being cheered by the government as well as the more extreme sectors of the opposition. While Venezuela analyst David Smilde has previously argued that his arrest is a miscalculation on the government’s part, he now suggests that some within the ruling PSUV see it as an opportunity. He writes:
[O]ther interlocutors suggested that the government is not miscalculating, since it likely sees value in having López at the head of the opposition. The Maduro government has trouble with day-to-day governance, but does much better in confrontation. Indeed one insider tells me that within the government there is a sense that the protests give them some breathing room vis-à-vis the much more difficult economic issues. He also suggests that US State Department statements were useful to the government as well. 
Tuesday’s events, including the government’s willingness to allow López to make a speech before turning himself in, suggest the government does see the ascension of López as an opportunity.

News Briefs
  • The violence in Venezuela has continued to elicit calls for dialogue from other countries in the region. On Tuesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos issued a statement suggesting that the Venezuelan government “establish channels of communication with the different political forces” in the country. President Nicolas Maduro gave a heated response to the suggestion, essentially telling his Colombian counterpart to butt out, and that “Venezuelans will solve Venezuelans’ problems.” But Santos is not alone in making appeals for peaceful dialogue. As El Pais reports, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) issued a statement surprisingly similar to Santos’, urging Maduro to “continue efforts to promote dialogue between all political forces.”
  • Maduro has received a strong backing from his ALBA allies, however. Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, for instance has accused “the U.S. and European countries” of fomenting dissent in Venezuela. Evo Morales of Bolivia has made similar statements, accusing the U.S. of seeking to fuel an internal conflict in Venezuela for its own benefit. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, for his part, has adopted a more enterprising position on Venezuela, taking  advantage of the timing of the protests in Caracas and upcoming mayoral elections in his country to urge Quito residents to vote for his favored candidate on Sunday. If his party loses the capital, Correa claimed the political climate there would resemble that of Venezuela, “where every day Nicolas Maduro confronts oppositions in Caracas.”
  • The North American Leaders' Summit in Toluca, Mexico ended yesterday with pledges from the presidents of Mexico, Canada and the United States to improve trade and security ties, as the AP and Animal Politico report. However, the meeting saw little in the way of concrete gains, and McClatchy’s Tim Johnson points out that the three leaders’ rhetoric did little to hide tensions between their countries. As the New York Times notes, the summit’s closing statement used the word “continue” eight times, in a testament to the meeting’s maintenance of the status quo.
  • This week has brought good news for advocates of judicial reform in Mexico. Yesterday, the country’s Supreme Court began assessing arguments against Mexican states’ use of a controversial legal mechanism known as the “arraigo,” under which suspects can be held for extended periods without charges being filed to allow investigators to build a case against them. As Jose Antonio Guevara, head of the Mexican Commission in Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), told CNN Mexico, the use of this mechanism by state prosecutors violates a 2008 law which mandated that states could only hold suspects through arraigos under house arrest.
  • The head of Paraguayan human rights group Reparation and Historic Memory, Rogelio Goiburu, told Spanish news agency EFE yesterday that efforts to recover the bodies of those disappeared during the Stroessner regime have been restarted with the help of Paraguayan authorities.
  • Imprisoned Cuban intelligence agent Fernando Gonzalez, who is set to be released from an Arizona prison next week, will be deported to Cuba soon after his release. With his discharge, the “Cuban Five” will be down to three. The AP has an interview with the first of the five to be released, Rene Gonzalez, who expressed hope that his colleague would join him in advocating for the release of the other two imprisoned Cuban agents.
  • The Inter-American Press Society has sent a delegation to Guatemala to investigate the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country, Prensa Libre reports. The visit comes after both the country’s president and vice president filed lawsuits against El Periodico newspaper editor Jose Ruben Zamora, who was accused of slander and blackmail after publishing allegations of government corruption.
  • Folha de S. Paulo has an op-ed by Liz Evans of Vancouver’s PHS Community Services Society, which manages the only supervised injection facility in North America. In it, Evans praises São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s “Operation Open Arms” program, which provides housing, food and work opportunities to individuals addicted to crack and living on the streets of the city’s “Cracolândia” neighborhood. The initiative was partially inspired by similar experimental programs in Vancouver that began over 20 years ago, and Evans points to their success as reasons for the  São Paulo government to remained committed to the project.
  • Today’s New York Times features an op-ed column by Brazilian journalist and Folha columnist Vanessa Barbara, who offers a unique take on the country’s military police. She argues that, while many police officers are guilty of rampant corruption and extrajudicial executions, their situation is made worse by low pay and poor working conditions. Demilitarizing the police, according to Barbara, would grant them more labor rights, open them up to be tried under the civilian justice system and potentially lower violence fueled by officers’ “training infused with a war mentality.”
  • Work on Panama’s canal expansion project, which had been halted due to a cost dispute between the construction firm overseeing the work and the canal authority, is set to resume this morning, according to La Prensa. The AP reports that the two sides have given themselves 72 hours to reach to hammer out the details of an accord on issues at stake in the dispute over the last several weeks.