Thursday, March 6, 2014

U.S. Weighs Targeted Sanctions as Venezuela Polarizes

As images of the harsh crackdown on opposition demonstrations in Venezuela filter to the U.S. public, an increasing number of pundits and celebrities have compared the unrest there with the situation in Ukraine. This has been followed by growing political support for a strong U.S. response, ranging from sanctions on officials responsible for violence to a full condemnation of Venezuela’s reaction to the protests.

Last week both of Florida’s senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, co-sponsored a bill to sanction Venezuelan government officials who hold assets, property and travel visas to the U.S., in retaliation for the police response to the demonstrations. The Miami Herald points out that the bill stops short of calling for a halt to oil imports from Venezuela, no doubt at least in part because it is one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously (393 to one, with Republican Thomas Massie the only dissenting vote) to condemn the “inexcusable violence perpetrated against opposition leaders and protesters in Venezuela,” and calling for governments and organizations in the region to stand in solidarity with protestors.

There are signs that support for at least targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials extends to the White House. On Monday, Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the press that President Obama is “looking at” sanctions on Venezuelan officials, citing an unnamed high-level State Department official.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death yesterday saw thousands turn out to mourn the loss of the deceased Venezuelan leader. But the commemorations did not distract the opposition from the student-led opposition protests and street blockades that continue in Caracas and elsewhere in the country.

On Monday, leaders of Venezuela’s student movement released a five-point “Merida Manifesto,” in which they call for the immediate release of all those arrested in connection to the protests, reject dialogue with the government (referred to as a “Castroist-Communist regime”) and demand that the militant pro-government groups known as colectivos be disarmed. With these objectives, the communiqué announced the creation of the Patriotic Student and Popular Council (JPEP). According to El Nacional, JPEP leaders have said that a series protests are planned for March 8 to call for the release of prisoners.

Because student groups have been the primary engine of the recent wave of demonstrations, the manifesto has been interpreted by some as an indicator of the core beliefs of the largely middle class opposition base. Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde argues that the JPEP’s insistence on arguments of individual liberty demonstrates a challenge to widening the opposition base to include disillusioned Chavistas. He writes: “[I]n political terms the statement reveals how little progress the opposition base has made in understanding what it will take to grow their coalition. The last fifteen years have shown that if Venezuelans have to choose between liberty and equality the latter will usually win out. Thus the art of politics in a context characterized by large scale poverty is in proposing solutions to inequality that at the same time preserve liberty.”

This is a similar argument to one put forward recently by Venezuela analysts Jennifer Lynn McCoy and Mike McCarthy in an excellent article for The National Interest. In it, the two maintain that the so-called “street strategy” being adopted by the MUD (Democratic Unity Roundtable) wing under jailed opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has -- at least in the short term -- only served to rally the Chavista base around President Nicolas Maduro.  The best hope for lasting stability in the country, then, is for both sides to develop methods to incorporate some of the demands of the other. Given the deeply polarized political climate in the country and the lack of any electoral contests to incentivize this in the short term, according to McCoy and McCarthy, this will be difficult.


News Briefs
  • The Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) is set to meet privately today to discuss the situation in Venezuela, taking up a motion filed by the government of Panama. A previous meeting scheduled for last week was canceled after Venezuelan representatives said the motion was made without the presence of the head of the council, Dominican Ambassador Pedro Verges. As a result of Panama’s initiative, Maduro announced yesterday that his government would break all diplomatic relations with the Central American country and “freeze all commercial and economic relations from this point on.” Whether the OAS meeting will result in anything concrete, such as ordering a mission being sent to assess the violence, is unclear. Because of the body’s preference for consensus, however, this is only a remote possibility, as experts consulted by McClatchy note.
  • Yesterday, Costa Rican presidential candidate Johnny Araya of the ruling Liberal Party has withdrawn his name from the country’s second round presidential vote in April, leaving Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) unopposed. Costa Rica’s La Nacion reports that Araya will continue to lead his party in opposition. The BBC points out that Araya’s name will still appear on the ballots, as Costa Rican law does not allow for it to be removed.
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an overview of the process of appointing Supreme Court justices in the country. Because judges are appointed by Congress, this involves a fair amount of political wrangling and deal-making among political parties. At the same time, however, the news site notes that the parties recognize implicitly that a “minimal amount of impartiality” is needed for judges, a sign that the country’s rickety justice system is making at least some progress.
  • Besieged Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro may have less time in office than many originally predicted. As Semana magazine reports, the various legal challenges submitted by the mayor against his ouster have been compiled into one, which could be ruled on in just two weeks.
  • The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is once again making headlines for actively opposing another unorthodox drug policy reform initiative in the region. Just as the UN organization did in the lead-up to the passage of Uruguay’s marijuana bill, INCB spokesman Alejandro Mohar expressed concern about the recently-submitted marijuana measures in Mexico. As Milenio and CNN Mexico report, Mohar also noted with alarm the increasing trend of countries in the Americas moving towards legalizing the drug, despite the lack of scientific evidence of its medicinal value.
  • Animal Politico reports on a newly-released report by Mexico’s National Citizen Femicide Observatory, which find disturbing evidence of the prevalence of violence against women in the country. According to the observatory, 6 women are killed per day in Mexico, and roughly half of that can be counted as “femicide,” defined as having misogynist or sexist motives.
  • Brazil’s Agencia Publica has an in-depth investigation into forced disappearances in the state of Rio de Janeiro. While the disappearance of bricklayer Amarildo de Souza sparked waves of protests last year, he was only one of roughly 6,000 who disappeared from 2012 to 2013. Alarmingly, the trend is on the rise, and some believe that there is a link between  this and a reduction in the number of homicides reportedly committed by police.
  • On Tuesday, Chevron won a huge victory in its three-year struggle against the terms of an Ecuadorean court ruling which found the oil giant was liable for $19 billion in damages caused by a major oil spill in the Amazon in the 1970s and 1980s. In his 500 page ruling (available here)  District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan found that defense lawyer Steven R. Donziger, who represented the indigenous locals affected by the spill, and his associated had ghostwritten a report submitted to the Ecuadorean court as independent testimony, and had bribed a judge to receive a favorable ruling. The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog has highlights of the ruling, including a segment where he accuses Donziger of pursuing the case in order to “communicate threats to Chevron.” The New York Times reports that the decision will be appealed, and will not affect attempts to pursue the enforcement of the Ecuadorean judge’s decision in other countries in the region (lawyers have sued Chevron in  Canada, Brazil and Argentina), though it provides a significant boost to Chevron’s legal defense.
  • After a 10-day absence from public events which led to speculation about his health see (La Prensa), Nicaraguan President resurfaced on Monday in a meeting with Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes at the Managua airport. The BBC reports that the president poked fun at the rumors quipped that the cardinal had performed a miracle by “resurrecting him.” Analyst James Bosworth compares Ortega’s absence and lack of explanation with the secrecy surrounding the health of Hugo Chavez before his death. Ortega’s visit to Caracas to mark Chavez’s death, he argues, should give him an opportunity to see the turbulent political climate caused by not establishing a credible political successor.
  • Attempts by the legal defense team of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to receive an injunction against his extradition to the U.S. saw a setback yesterday, when a Mexican judge dismissed the request on the grounds that an extradition request had not yet been filed.