Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lopez on Trial, Venezuela’s Opposition Badly Divided

After being held for five months in prison, Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez finally went to trial in Caracas yesterday on charges of inciting violence during February’s wave of protests.

While Lopez’s day in court finally arrived, it was marked by some suspicious shortcomings in the way the case is being handled. As El Universal reports, the judge in the case has refused to allow the defense to submit any of its proposed evidence against Lopez’s detention. The public prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, was granted permission to present 56 separate pieces of evidence against the opposition leader, including videos, reports and testimony from witnesses and experts.

On top of this, Lopez’s attorneys have complained that their petitions to open the hearing to the press were denied. No cameras or reporters were allowed into the courtroom, as the Wall Street Journal notes. When asked about the case at a press conference yesterday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was unsympathetic, saying: “He is responsible for crimes. He has to pay, and he will pay[…]For us, what's important is to govern and to make sure that groups like these don't do any more damage to the country.”

Proceedings against Lopez, as well as several student protesters detained during the protests, will resume on August 6.

If lowering the profile of Lopez’s trial and promising to treat others calling for Maduro’s ouster with a firm hand are part of a strategy to isolate the opposition, this appears to be working. Lopez’s “La Salida” demonstrations have fizzled out, and the smaller, student-led protests that have persisted have failed to generate momentum.

Meanwhile Henrique Capriles, the former presidential candidate who has taken a more conciliatory approach to opposing Chavismo, continues to advocate a longer-term strategy than Lopez’s calls for Maduro to resign. In an interview published on Venezuelan commentary site Konzapata.com yesterday, Capriles defended this, basing it on the assumption that an economic downturn in the near future is inevitable. “What I proposed was let’s give the economic and social crisis the opportunity to do its work -- because we knew it was coming -- so then let’s tactically allow the economic and social crisis time to become a political one,” said Capriles.

But even assuming an economic crisis arises, it is unclear whether Capriles can gain traction among moderates in the Chavista camp, let alone unite the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, which remains badly fractured in the wake of the split over protest strategies. And as Juan Nagel points out in Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) seems to have used these divisions to its advantage despite all recent reports about  dissent within in its own ranks. Nagel writes:
In parallel, the government was busy cracking down on protestors and driving a wedge between opposition leaders. The authorities are keeping Lopez in solitary confinement until trial, have stripped [opposition lawmaker Maria Corina] Machado of her parliamentary post, have taken away her passport, and have charged her with "incitement to commit acts of violence." But a few days ago, a high-ranking MUD politician stated that Lopez had brought jail on himself, and that therefore the opposition felt no responsibility to do anything to get him out. (The politician in question has also recanted). 
The debate between the two factions continues to rage, and instead of talking to each other, they are taking to the media to trash one another. The fighting has bred deep suspicion and disappointment in opposition public opinion.

News Briefs
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has elected a new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Uruguayan Edison Lanza will take up the job on October 6, when current Rapporteur Catalina Botero steps down. In addition to his experience as a lawyer and press freedom advocate, Lanza worked from 2000 to 2012 as an editor and writer for Busqueda, an Uruguayan weekly magazine that has established itself as the leading political chronicler in the country. Spanish news agency EFE notes that Lanza will take office at a particularly difficult moment, in which the rapporteurship has become the central target of ALBA bloc countries calling for IACHR reform. In a piece published in Grupo de Diarios America papers today, an anonymous IACHR observer remarks that Lanza’s nationality may work to his advantage, as leaders like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa may be less inclined to criticize “a rapporteur of Mujica’s Uruguay” than Botero, who is Colombian.  For more on Lanza’s positions, see this Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) briefing on the main candidates’ stances on freedom of expression in the hemisphere in response to a questionnaire. In his answer, the Uruguayan stresses the importance of internet freedom, protecting whistleblowers, and the links between freedom of expression and securing ESC rights.
  • The Miami Herald looks at Venezuela’s efforts to relocate the thousands of people who have taken up residence in Caracas’ largest unfinished skyscraper, the Tower of David. The paper notes that authorities have denied rumors that the tower was purchased by Chinese developers.
  • The New York Times reports that conmen posing as charity workers in the U.S. have obtained identifying information on migrant children held at U.S. military bases, fueling a predatory scheme in which relatives are made to pay exorbitant “fees” to reunite with them.
  • Ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled meeting with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador tomorrow to discuss the increase in unaccompanied child migrants from the region, Guatemala’s Otto Perez has confirmed that he plans to use the visit to call on Obama to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to undocumented Guatemalans living in the country. His predecessor, Alvaro Colom, made similar requests during his administration, with no luck.
  • The office of Peru’s Prime Minister, as the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, has continued to be a “revolving door” under the administration of President Ollanta Humala. Prime Minister Rene Cornejo resigned on Tuesday after it was reported that an adviser of his gave money to an informer to discredit an opposition congressman spearheading a corruption investigation of Cornejo. He was replaced by former labor minister and Congresswoman Ana Jara, who has promised to improve transparency and anti-corruption efforts, RPP reports. It is possible that Urresti’s resignation in the face of corruption allegations will increase pressure on Daniel Urresti, Humala’s newly appointed interior minister who currently faces murder charges, to step down as well. Peruvian journalist Fernando Vivas, however, argues in an El Comercio column that Urresti’s “mano dura” image may have actually given Humala’s administration an image boost, making his dismissal unlikely.
  • La Nacion reports Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou was made to appear before a federal judge and present a written statement yesterday in connection to allegations he improperly registered a car under his name, charges that are unrelated to the corruption case against him. The AP points out that while the allegations against Boudou have left President Cristina Fernandez with no obvious successor, she still has not commented publicly on the case against him.
  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Americas Blog features a tidy roundup of Latin American leaders’ responses to Israel’s military action in the Gaza Strip. Interestingly, the left-wing governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia have issued predictably harsh condemnations of Israel’s use of force (and Hamas’ rocket attacks), they have been joined by the typically more moderate governments of Chile and Uruguay. More recently, O Globo reports today that Brazil has recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultation.