The Venezuelan government and the opposition have agreed to begin a series of talks mediated by the Vatican and foreign ministers of the region, an important first step towards overcoming the country’s deeply polarized political climate.
Yesterday when the leadership of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition first confirmed its attendance at a meeting with the government, to be sponsored by the visiting delegation of Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) foreign ministers, expectations were low. MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo was careful to frame the meeting as an “exploratory” one, and not necessarily the beginning of dialogue.
Fortunately, there appears to have been significant progress made in the meeting, which was attended by two other MUD leaders as well as President Nicolas Maduro, First Lady Cilia Flores, Vice President Jorge Arreaza and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, according to El Pais.
The specifics of the future talks are still being ironed out, but El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias report that both Arreaza and Aveledo have confirmed that they will take place in the presence of “good faith” witnesses. According to the vice president, this role will be filled by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, as well as the Vatican’s representative in the country. In a press conference following the meeting, Arreaza also said that the talks would “touch on all issues in the country’s interest,” including economic issues. There was no mention of giving into demands to disarm pro-government “colectivos,” or of freeing imprisoned opposition members.
The first of these meetings is to take place either today or tomorrow, and both parties have agreed that it should be broadcast live on national television.
But while the MUD’s formal leadership has agreed to participate in the talks, the most visible faces of the Venezuelan opposition remain skeptical. Reuters notes that in a series of Twitter messages posted by his wife on his behalf, imprisoned opposition figure Leopoldo Leader said he believed only in a dialogue of equals, not with one side “on its knees.”
A quick scan of the Twitter profiles of the other leading MUD figures suggests that they share similar sentiments. Maria Corina Machado has insisted that any dialogue lead to a “democratic transition,” rejecting any talks that would, in her words, “stabilize the dictatorship.” Even Henrique Capriles, the most pro-dialogue opposition leader, has cautioned that dialogue would not mean that “the people should quit demanding their rights.”
- Despite earlier signals from the Obama administration that it was considering supporting limited sanctions of Venezuelan officials, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers yesterday that no such actions will be taken as long as dialogue in the country continues. When questioned by Republican Senator Mark Rubio about this, Kerry replied that the current strategy was to avoid giving the Maduro government an “excuse” to pull out of talks, reports El Nuevo Herald.
- Kerry’s remarks square well with recent statements by President Maduro. In an exclusive interview published yesterday by The Guardian, the Venezuelan president characterized ongoing protests as an extension of longstanding U.S. intervention in the region, calling them proof that the Obama administration wants to "get their hands on Venezuelan oil."
- In remarks to the House and Senate subcommittees responsible for overseeing the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development yesterday, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah told lawmakers that the agency’s “Cuban Twitter” program was completely legal. As the New York Times reports, Shah insisted that its goal was merely to promote uncensored communication, did not constitute a covert political operation. However, the Associated Press (which first leaked the story) reports that it obtained documents which clearly show that the program was used to transmit political messages and poke fun at government officials.
- As “autodefensa” leaders in Mexico’s Michoacan state continue to ignore calls to disarm and federal officials announced an investigation into state government corruption, Milenio and El Universal report that the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto is fending off comparisons with the heavy-handed approach to the state of his predecessor, Felipe Caledron.
- BBC Mundo profiles the Uruguayan government’s interest in using its historic marijuana regulation initiative to test the potential for cannabis use to reduce dependence on crack. In remarks to the AP, National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada confirmed that the penal system will make the drug available to prison inmates on doctors’ orders. Calzada also announced that the rollout of the specific regulations of the law has been delayed by a couple of days, and will now be unveiled between April 20 and 25.
- Guatemala’s El Periodico has an interview with judge Yasmin Barrios, who found ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Barrios was recently suspended from practicing for a year by the Guatemalan bar association on dubious grounds, a decision she calls “unjust and illegal.” Barrios received support yesterday from a number of international civil society organizations, as well as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which expressed “concern” over threats and intimidation faced by Barrios.
- The AP reports that chronic construction delays in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the 2016 Olympics have led to “unprecedented venting of criticism and complaints” from international sports leaders, prompting the International Olympic Committee to promise to take action to ease the situation.
- In remarks to reporters outside the Colombian embassy in Washington on Monday, Colombian ambassador Luis Carlos Villegas made an appeal for falling U.S. security aid to his country to be replaced by financial support for government efforts to boost the justice system, the Miami Herald reports.
- Colombia’s Semana reports that President Juan Manuel Santos has said that if a court orders him to restore ousted Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, he would do so. According to the magazine, Petro’s defense team has submitted a legal challenge to his removal to the country’s top administrative court, but it is not clear whether the case would be taken up any time soon.
- Yesterday El Salvador’s security ministry confirmed reports that street gangs in the country appear to have received training from weapons experts, a development which comes amid growing concern over the gangs’ sophistication. As InSight Crime notes, recent statements by security officials continue to put pressure on President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren to adopt a detailed security strategy to address the issue of gang violence.
- A landmark human trafficking case in Argentina came to a close yesterday after a court sentenced the accused to between 10 to 22 years in prison, reversing a lower court decision which found the 10 defendants not guilty. The 2002 disappearance of Marita Veron led her mother Susana Trimarco to launch a high-profile campaign which earned her international recognition, and focused attention on human trafficking in the country. In remarks to La Nacion following the trial, Trimarco said the ruling brought “a little bit of peace,” and promised to continue her search for her daughter.