Friday, March 28, 2014

UNASUR Proposes Mediated Talks in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has accepted a proposal made by the visiting Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation to engage in facilitated talks with the opposition, marking a significant breakthrough in the country’s political crisis.

Yesterday, the UNASUR foreign ministers’ delegation released a statement on its two-day visit to Venezuela. The wording is rather vague -- it mostly lists the various actors who spoke with the ministers and notes the interest of all sides in peaceful dialogue -- and does not include a list of specific recommendations made to the Venezuelan government. Instead, the press release praises Maduro’s willingness to embrace mediated talks through a “good faith witness.”

The delegation did not say who would appoint this third party, but remarks to the press by Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and other diplomatic sources have suggested that the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador would take the lead in UNASUR’s future promotion of talks. As El Tiempo reports, Colombian President Juan Manuel appeared to confirm this yesterday, announcing that “a group of three foreign ministers of three countries was created to finalize conditions for dialogue.”

In the wake of the UNASUR visit, Maduro has been vocal in his support for the delegation. In a national address yesterday, the president said he welcomed the call for a neutral international arbiter. El Nacional and the Associated Press note that Maduro even suggested that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state who until recently was the Holy See's ambassador to the country, could fulfill this role. The president also said he would tone down his rhetoric, promising to cease referring to the opposition as “Chuckies,” a reference to the murderous doll films.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced that the country would create a new human rights office under the executive branch. Arreaza claimed this was one of UNASUR’s recommendations (he said it was put forward by Colombia’s Maria Angela Holguin), but again, as specific recommendations have not been publicized it is unclear how much of the proposal is the government’s own initiative.

While Maduro is on board the UNASUR-sponsored dialogue proposition, its degree of support among the opposition is unclear. Secretary General of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, has been open to dialogue but stressed the importance of a neutral mediator agreed upon by both sides. Other sectors of the MUD, however, have been openly hostile to UNASUR involvement. Yesterday, six smaller member parties publicly criticized Aveledo for meeting with the UNASUR delegates. One opposition lawmaker, Carlos Berrizbeitia, told El Nacional that the coalition had rejected UNASUR as a credible mediator, although this does not appear to be the MUD’s official stance.

Venezuelan civil society is also divided over UNASUR mediation. While members of the Venezuelan Penal Forum (FPV) described their meeting with the delegation this week as positive overall, FPV Director Alfredo Romero said the body was not ideal for settling human rights cases. “A foreign minister cannot resolve violations of constitutional rights…a court can,” Romero said to Ultimas Noticias. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) has welcomed international mediation, with PROVEA’s Rafael Uzcategui calling the UNASUR visit “a message of the need for a third party for productive dialogue, as the government of Nicolas Maduro has not been able to create conditions for it to be effective.”

News Briefs
  • While the ongoing drought in the southeast of Brazil has fueled speculation (see the Wall Street Journal) that it could hurt President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election prospects in October, a new poll shows that her popularity has fallen in recent months. The CNI/Ibope survey released yesterday shows that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s personal approval rating fell to 51 percent from 56 percent in November, and support for her administration has dropped to 36 percent from 43 percent in the same period. Even still, Reuters notes that she remains the clear frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Locals in the central Bolivian city of Yapacani organized demonstrations yesterday to protest against the construction of a military base that officials say will be used to fight drug trafficking in the area. The BBC reports that residents fear it would lead to increased violence and conflicts with security forces. The government has announced that it will go through with the construction of the base regardless of the protests, a move that El Deber notes could cost President Evo Morales support for his MAS party in October’s general elections.
  • After Uruguay made headlines last week for apparently considering an offer to accept former Guantanamo detainees from the U.S., Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin announced yesterday that President Juan Manuel Santos had received a similar request, though she said the government has not fully analyzed it, Semana reports.
  • In the latest story to highlight the murky makeup of Mexico’s “self-defense” groups, yesterday the Mexican Attorney General announced the arrest of 11 individuals suspected of being criminals posing as vigilantes, who were charged with the illegal possession of firearms. Considering that a number of high-profile vigilante leaders have been found to have criminal records and shady connections of their own, it is unclear how exactly investigators determined these suspects were “fake” militiamen.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is slated to hold two hearings on human rights cases in Ecuador today, one of which involves freedom of speech and another on the right to associate, which civil society groups say is threatened by the forced closure of the Pachamama Foundation -- an environmental NGO --in December. However, the government of Ecuador has announced that it will not participate in the hearings, with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño saying the state refused to “put on a political show” for the IACHR. In a press conference yesterday, Patiño also accused the commission of being “a politicized institution which seeks to persecute democratic governments that do not follow certain guidelines,” the AP reports.
  • Today’s New York Times features a follow-up of its recent feature on Ecuador’s Isaias brothers, two wealthy business magnates who have fled to Miami after the Correa government accused them of corruption. According to the NYT, the Department of Homeland Security is currently investigating money laundering charges against the two, who have made contributions to a number of political campaigns in the U.S. in an alleged attempt to avoid extradition.
  • Guatemala’s Constitutional Court held a hearing on Wednesday on the ongoing case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, in which the prosecution argued that the judge who ordered the annulment of Rios Montt’s historic guilty verdict a year ago lacked the proper standing to do so, Siglo21 reports. If the Court stands by the annulment, it will bring the trial back to where it was in 2011, invalidating the testimony of dozens of victims.
  • Yesterday newly-inaugurated Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed a bill into law which creates a new Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, a fitting move for the former head of UN Women. As La Tercera reports, the law fulfills a campaign promise and allows Bachelet to check off one of the 50 measures she plans to carry out in her first 100 days in office.
  • Bachelet’s government has also made headlines for her approach to drug policy. Earlier this month, the country’s Miinstry of Health and drug control agency suggested removing marijuana from its list of banned substances, which would pave the way for the drug’s legal medicinal use. On Wednesday, a survey released by pollster CADEM showed that some 78 percent of Chileans support medicinal use of cannabis.
  • In the wake of Paraguay’s historic general strike on Wednesday, which stopped most transportation services and forced the closure of schools and businesses across the country, EFE reports that President Horacio Cartes has announced the creation of a dialogue commission with the country’s main union centers. The AP gives some background on the strike, noting that it was triggered by the ruling Colorado Party’s passage of a controversial privatization measure.