Wednesday, March 26, 2014

UNASUR Delegation Meets Venezuelan Opposition

The visit of UNASUR foreign ministers to Caracas provides an opportunity for the regional organization to promote dialogue in Venezuela’s polarized political climate, potentially proving itself to be a more credible and effective arbiter  in the country than the OAS.  

Yesterday, the delegation began its two-day country visit to Venezuela, in accordance with a recent agreement made in Santiago, Chile. According to the text of the March 12 statement, the foreign ministers of UNASUR member states are there to “accompany, support and advise” the Venezuelan government’s efforts to promote dialogue with opposition sectors, along with President Nicolas Maduro’s “national peace conference.”

But with this goal in mind, the visit got off to a bad start yesterday. The delegation’s preliminary agenda -- set by the government of Suriname, the current UNASUR president pro tempore -- excluded several major opposition groups, like the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). This was challenged yesterday by the foreign ministers of Colombia and Paraguay, who called on Suriname to broaden the schedule of their 48-hour visit to include the MUD and other opposition voices in the country.

It appears this request was granted, as after the delegates met with Maduro, religious leaders, and members of the government-sponsored peace conference, El Universal reports that they met with MUD leaders in the Meliá Caracas hotel yesterday evening. The issues discussed reportedly included the recent ouster of opposition mayors and the move to strip lawmaker Maria Corina Machado of her seat. The meeting lasted over three hours, after which MUD Secretary  Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told journalists that the opposition coalition was open to a dialogue with the government and “a third party in good faith,” according to EFE.

Not only was the MUD meeting a valuable step towards tackling Venezuela’s polarization, it also provides some reassurance to the opposition that UNASUR might serve as that objective third party. Prior to the visit, the MUD called this into question, sending a letter to the UNASUR president pro tempore requesting that the regional bloc not be used as a “propaganda tool.”

According to Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, the second half of the delegation’s visit will continue today with meetings with student leaders and ruling party activists.

Once the visit comes to an end today, it is unclear what exactly will follow. The delegation’s mandate is fairly vague, and says nothing about issuing recommendations. It does, however, mention concern for any threat to Venezuela’s “independence and sovereignty,” and considering how prickly Maduro has been with regard to OAS statements on Venezuela, recommendations may be off the table.

Harold Trinkunas, director of the Brookings Institute’s Latin America Initiative, argues that the delegation should adopt a wide interpretation of its mandate, as doing otherwise would weaken UNASUR’s credibility and potential to address future conflicts in the region. As he suggests, this might include widening the current dialogues, or even creating a new forum which would include those opposition sectors not currently participating in the peace conference (a move which the MUD’s Aveledo now seems to favor).


News Briefs
  • As Folha de São Paulo reports, Brazil’s lower house has approved the country’s long-pending net neutrality bill, the "Marco Civil da Internet." It was passed without major debate, as the the Rousseff administration made concessions on an initial requirement stating that companies which store data from Brazilian users had to do so within the country’s borders. The new version of the bill also allows the president to determine the specifics of “net neutrality” via an executive order.
  • In an opinion piece for CNN Mexico, Lisa Sanchez of Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD) takes on recent allegations by critics of the recent marijuana decriminalization initiative presented in Mexico City that the measure would violate international drug law. As Sanchez notes, the UN Narcotics Convention actually allows states some flexibility in assigning sentencing for drug violations, which would fit well with the text of the Mexico City bill. On Friday, drug policy reform received implicit support from the city’s Human Rights Commission, which called for an end to the stigmatization of drug use in the release of a new report, El Universal reports. However, at the same presentation the head of the DF’s Supreme Court criticized the legislative debate on the bill as “sterile,” saying that drug policy was a purely federal matter.
  • Prensa Libre and the AP report on the trial of Felipe Solano Barrillas, the first Guatemalan ex-guerrilla for a mass killing during the country’s civil war. At a hearing yesterday, the judge heard testimony from other former rebels who said Solano personally ordered the 1988 massacre of 22 villagers of El Aguacate, after locals uncovered an insurgent arms cache in the area.
  • Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes is facing a serious test of his administration: the first general strike in Paraguay since 1994. BBC Mundo notes that the strike comes amid growing concern about inequality in the country, and that Cartes has accused the strike's main organizers of attempting to incite violence, which they deny.
  • This time, it’s finally official: yesterday El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) officially furnished FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren with the necessary credentials to be legally recognized as the country’s president elect. The move comes after the TSE formally denied ARENA’s request to annul the results of the close second elections. After the news, Sanchez Ceren reportedly held a meeting with the national business council, according to La Prensa Grafica, perhaps an effort to ease concerns of a radical shift to the left in a second FMLN presidency.
  • Today’s New York Times features an in-depth investigation of the financial structures of Mexico’s mighty Sinaloa Cartel, which relies on wealthy businesspeople who frequently operate in plain sight. Dismantling these networks in Mexico, experts say, is made difficult by a lack of both political will and a legal framework in the country.
  • Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has penned an op-ed for today’s NYT from his cell in a military prison outside Caracas. In it, Lopez claims that he has only called for non-violent, peaceful protests, and repeats the opposition coalition’s demands for demonstrators to be freed and Chavista “colectivos” to be disarmed.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced yesterday that three air force generals had been arrested for allegedly planning out a coup d’état. He did not reveal their names or give details of their plans, but said that they had been reported by younger officers, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • The Times also looks at repeated assertions by the anti-government opposition in both Cuba and Venezuela that Cuban officials have a disproportionate influence in the South American country. While little factual evidence has been presented to support these accusations, it has energized the opposition in both countries.