Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader and founder of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, appeared in court on Tuesday for the first time since the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found his detention illegal and called for his immediate release on October 9. He had refused to appear until presiding judge Susana Barreiro ruled on the recommendation.
Judge Barreiro rejected the WGAD recommendation last week, saying that it was not binding. Using the same argument as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Barreiro argued that Venezuela is a sovereign nation and rejects international interference. López’ lawyers have appealed Judge Barreiro’s decision in the Court of Appeals.
López has been in pre-trial detention since he was arrested on February 18 for his alleged involvement in inciting violence during widespread protests. President Maduro has said that he believes that López is “responsible for crimes, violence, destruction, (loss of) human lives,” and that “he has to pay, and he's going to pay.”
Various high-profile world leaders have called for the release of López and the other political prisoners arrested during Venezuela’s tumultuous protests in February, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis I, and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. On Monday, Socialist International joined the growing lists of international groups and human rights organizations calling for López’ release.
The family of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López announced yesterday that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled in Opinion No. 26/2014 that López is being held illegally, and called for his release. The Working Group consists of five members appointed by the UN Human Rights Council that investigate possible cases of arbitrary detention, and they have been working on the Lopéz case since he was arrested on February 18 for the alleged incitement of violence during widespread protests.
López, the national coordinator of the opposition party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), is being held at the Ramo Verde military prison in Miranda state. In addition to determining that López’ detention was “arbitrary,” the Working Group asked the Venezuelan government for reparations for his detention. President Nicolás Maduro’s government had previously met with the Working Group to defend its treatment of López and argue against López’ claims, although they were unsuccessful. The group further noted that his imprisonment appeared to be motivated by political opinion.
The government detained hundreds of demonstrators involved in the anti-government protests that erupted in February, including Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano from San Cristobal and San Diego, respectively. The government is currently facing numerous allegations of human rights violations surrounding both the arrests and the treatment of its prisoners. International criticism of the detentions has increased in recent weeks, with calls for the release of prisoners from U.S. President Barack Obama and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.
Jesus Torrealba, the new chief of Venezuela’s Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) opposition coalition, has targeted Venezuela’s 2015 parliamentary elections as the opposition’s next strategic opportunity to end chavista rule. After narrowly losing the presidential election to President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, the opposition coalition is now looking to win a majority in the National Assembly next year in order to put pressure on the president and potentially force a recall referendum in 2016.
Although the ruling Partido Socialist Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) maintains control over the executive and legislative branches, Maduro’s administration has been beleaguered by a rapidly declining economy, 63 percent inflation, high crime rates, and shortages of basic goods.
In addition to the months-long protests against the Maduro government that engulfed several major cities in Venezuela earlier this year, the administration has also come under fire from a dissident faction on the Left critical of what it sees as a departure from the Bolivarian Revolution’s ideals. "What we have now is deterioration ...This is chavismo's worst moment ever," Gonzalo Gomez Frieire, leader of the dissident Marea Socialista (socialist tide) told Reuters.
While the MUD has historically been known as a fractured party—most notably when former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López responded differently to the popular protests in February—many see an equally fractured PSUV as the primary explanation for Maduro’s lack of an adequate response to Venezuela’s recession.
President Maduro’s approval rate dropped to 35 percent in September in light of the continued economic crisis.
En nombre de la Revolución Bolivariana, Hugo Chávez le dio una prioridad nunca antes vista a la política exterior venezolana. Ni en el periodo de la Doctrina Betancourt—diseñada para aislar a los regímenes autoritarios de las Américas—ni en el del Tercermundismo de primer gobierno de Carlos Andrés Pérez, tuvo Caracas un protagonismo internacional como el que experimentó bajo la revolucionaria y sobredimensionada Doctrina Chávez.
Es por ello que la tímida y defensiva posición diplomática de Venezuela en el primer año de Maduro llama la atención y genera cambios en la dinámica política hemisférica. ¿Qué pasó con la política exterior venezolana? El precio de un barril de petróleo sigue alrededor de los US $100, y Chávez parece haber dejado instrucciones precisas. Las principales piezas gabinete de gobierno son hombres de confianza de “El Comandante,” pero la política exterior venezolana es irreconocible.
Como política pública, la exterior es compleja, porque conecta a los sistemas políticos doméstico e internacional, es decir, que está sujeta a variables internas y externas. Las variables del sistema internacional—salvo graves crisis—suelen moverse de manera lenta. Aun los cambios más espectaculares requieren de meses o años de maduración antes de ocurrir. La política doméstica puede ser más volátil, sobre todo en países en los que la institucionalidad ha sido degradada sistemáticamente. Esto genera una interacción de sistemas que van a distinta velocidad. Por esta razón, el caso de la contracción de la política exterior venezolana debe ser coyunturalmente analizado a partir de factores de política doméstica.
De los factores a analizar podemos destacar dos íntimamente vinculados: la desprofesionalización diplomática y la ausencia del líder fuerte. Ambos corresponden al proceso de desinstitucionalización propio del personalismo político. El primero es responsabilidad directa del mismo Chávez. Contrario al resto de las potencias regionales y potencias medias—y buena parte de las menores—latinoamericanas, Venezuela partidizó su academia diplomática y en la práctica abolió la carrera del servicio exterior. Este proceso fortaleció al presidente, a su partido, pero debilitó al Estado en su conjunto. La muerte de Chávez pone en evidencia a una política exterior altamente dependiente de la discrecionalidad, sin que existan instituciones que permitan darle continuidad, ni siquiera a la propia promoción revolucionaria en el exterior.
Luego de pasar por la elección más reñida en la historia reciente de El Salvador, el país espera que en menos de un mes Mauricio Funes, el primer presidente del partido de izquierda Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), deje el poder y le pase la banda presidencial al primer presidente excombatiente del FMLN, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
El país está literalmente dividido—después de una elección cuya diferencia fue de apenas 0.22 por ciento—y se encuentra en un ambiente de expectativa, en ocasiones tenso y nervioso. Ante una realidad como esa, sumada a un panorama económico desalentador y un aumento en la delincuencia, el presidente electo se verá obligado a colaborar con la oposición política al menos hasta las elecciones legislativas del 2015. Es por eso que la reciente visita de Sánchez Cerén a Venezuela ha generado reacciones encontradas.
Yo le doy dos posibles lecturas a la visita de Sánchez Cerén a Venezuela el pasado 1 de mayo: la primera es optimista y la segunda es un poco más apegada a la realidad. Hace dos meses, en las vísperas de la elección presidencial de El Salvador, el presidente venezolano Nicolás Maduro fue el primero en felicitar a Sánchez Cerén, aun cuando a El Salvador se le agotaban los recursos legales para afirmar quien había ganado la elección presidencial con los márgenes de diferencia más estrechos de las últimas décadas.
The Venezuelan executive’s approval rating dropped from 46.8 percent in February to 37 percent in April amid chronic consumer shortages, high inflation, increased violence, and street protests that began in February.
The poll, conducted by public opinion group Datanálisis, also found that 79.5 percent of Venezuelans have a negative view of the country’s current state. The economic conditions—including an inflation rate rapidly approaching 60 percent—as well as the violence and extreme shortages that sparked the nation-wide protests in February continue to be the biggest factors affecting Maduro’s popularity. A third of Venezuelans polled cited these as the country’s main problems.
Venezuela has also faced international scrutiny for its response to the three-month-long demonstrations that have paralyzed major cities across the nation. A recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted the unlawful use of force perpetrated by security forces against unarmed, nonviolent anti-government protestors, who have been shot at point blank range, severely beaten, and forced to undergo physiological and physiological torture.
Peace talks between President Maduro’s government and the Venezuelan opposition are scheduled to continue today, while the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática’s (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) opposition coalition calls for the Central Bank to release March’s official inflation data. The bank generally releases the datain the first 10 days of the month.
The MUD claims that country’s inflation is 60 percent, an increase of 2.7 percent since February. Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles announced via Twitter that inflation increased more than 4 percent in March—higher than the annual inflation for several other Latin American countries. While no agenda has been set, financial transparency is expected to be a one of the topics in the peace negotiations that will continue today.
The country’s high inflation was one of the factors that sparked the deadly protests that erupted across the country in February killing at least 41 people. Venezuela’s military strategic command chief, Vladmir Padrino, recently admitted to “excesses” in policing, but maintains that less than one percent of security forces were responsible for the “cruelty and torture.”
A finales de 2002, después de meses de conflicto y de un golpe de estado que dejó al entonces presidente Hugo Chávez fuera del poder por dos días, Venezuela decidió apostar por el diálogo. César Gaviria, quien estaba al frente de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA), abrió el debate entre gobierno y oposición, representado por la Coordinadora Democrática, una coalición de partidos, ONGs y agremiaciones adversas al "proceso revolucionario."
En medio de las negociaciones se inició un paro nacional que buscaba presionar la renuncia del Presidente. Dos meses de inactividad comercial asestaron duros golpes a la economía nacional, especialmente a la industria petrolera, pero Chávez salió victorioso. Con la derrota de la oposición, el diálogo adquirió mayor fuerza y condujo a un acuerdo que se cristalizó con un referendo revocatorio presidencial que dejo a Chávez en el poder. Una vez más, Chávez ganó la batalla.
Desde entonces, la oposición y el gobierno han participado en una danza política que ha hecho imposible el consenso nacional. Ambos bandos se han negado a reconocer al otro lado y, ensimismados, parecen ignorar que el país colapsa. Ahora, después de un año de intenso enfrentamiento político, y después de dos meses de protestas con un saldo de 41 muertos y más de 2 mil detenidos, el gobierno, encabezado por Nicolás Maduro, y la Mesa de la Unidad Democrática—coalición opositora que defiende la vía institucional para resolver la crisis—aceptaron exponer sus puntos de vista, frente a frente, en la sede presidencial. La reunión fue obligatoriamente transmitida en cadenas de radio y televisión.
A delegation of foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) returned to Caracas on April 7 and 8, securing an agreement to hold peace talks to calm political polarization and protests in Venezuela. The talks are being mediated by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, plus a Vatican representative.
The UNASUR delegation first visited in late March, recommending that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and leaders of the opposition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) enter into a dialogue. The U.S. State Department had expressed support , as had Organization of American States (OAS) General Secretary José Miguel Insulza.
However, UNASUR’s plan will be complicated by Maduro’s reliance on paramilitaries within his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV), whose loyalty requires his polarizing words and deeds. This conundrum already wrecked a previous dialogue.
In early February, before protests broke out, a highly placed government official explained to me, on the condition of anonymity, that Maduro was pursuing dialogue and cooperation with the opposition. This was because Maduro had realized that citizen insecurity could sink his administration—and that chavismo could not solve this problem alone. “The opposition controls many of the largest states and municipalities," the official said, and "without the help of these governors and mayors, we cannot solve this problem. […] They are the ones that control the police and bureaucracy in these areas; we don’t.”
Maduro’s decision to approach Henry Falcón, a former chavista and governor of Lara state, as well as elected opposition officials in Caracas, appeared to be paying off. Successful meetings had also begun with Henrique Capriles, leader of the MUD and governor of Miranda state, Antonio Ledezma, the metropolitan mayor of Caracas, and opposition mayors of Caracas’ local municipalities.
Demonstrating Maduro’s seriousness, I was told that PSUV Federal District Mayor Jorge Rodríguez was "fully onboard” with the meetings, despite his reputation as a strident chavista. The “big problem,” according to the Maduro administration official, was Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, who did not have any interest in talks.
Indeed, a section of the opposition was strenuously arguing that it was political suicide to cooperate with Maduro if his polarizing rhetoric and restriction of democratic opposition activity continued unabated.
This sparked "#LaSalida"—a call for protests against the Maduro administration. A bitter confrontation ensued between the pro-dialogue opposition and #LaSalida’s authors—López and María Corina Machado, a national assembly member. When #LaSalida led to protests on February 12, Maduro had Lopez thrown in prison, only reinforcing López’ warnings.
Why couldn’t Maduro restrain his seemingly counterproductive words and deeds? A major reason is that some members of the PSUV feel such antagonism to the opposition that Maduro dared not enter into a dialogue without continuing to vilify and restrict the opposition. Although he had good reasons to seek cooperation, Maduro’s base has been nurtured on highly polarized, class-antagonistic, black-and-white, good-and-evil rhetoric.
Sustaining polarizing rhetoric especially caters to the PSUV paramilitaries Maduro needs to stay in power. Chavismo was never very effective organizing on its own in barrios, and Chávez didn’t even launch the PSUV until 2008, so he turned to groups that already had control in the barrios before chavismo arrived. Today, chavismo’s very effective get-out-the-vote and loyalty-enforcement machine in Venezuela’s barrios relies on allied “ultra-Left” groups, local criminal groupings and motorcycle gangs that have become armed paramilitary groups, euphemistically called “colectivos”—a slander against most colectivos, which are non-violent barrio community groups.
But these paramilitary gangs could turn against Maduro without receiving the clientalist largesse and rhetoric that reifies their sense of solidarity with his administration. Chávez—who began enlisting them following the failed 2002 anti-Chávez coup as future street fighters to protect his government— occasionally spoke sharply to regulate these groups’ excesses, something Maduro lacks a similar authority to do. And, their effectiveness as extra-legal enforcers has been recently demonstrated as they’ve marauded in opposition middle-class neighborhoods, attacked demonstrations and barricades, invaded universities to beat students, and—most importantly for Maduro—prevented open protests in their home-turf barrios.
Maduro’s contradictory dependence on—and fear of—paramilitaries explains why he has called opposition protesters “fascists” and “coup plotters.” This deliberately evokes the romantic logic for paramilitaries, whom Chávez declared would “descend from the barrios” to defend the presidential palace against any future coup.
These PSUV dynamics clearly threaten UNASUR’s new peace dialogue. Especially if the government’s recent economic response to protests fails to produce timely reductions in food shortages and inflation, protests could spread into barrios—the Maduro administration’s worst nightmare—and further cement Maduro’s reliance on paramilitaries there.
Even though Maduro’s allies in UNASUR publically advised him in March to abandon inflammatory rhetoric, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself earlier advised Maduro to “… dialogue with all the democrats,” such steps could directly undermine the loyalty of the PSUV’s core get-out-the-vote, barrio-pacification and street-fighting apparatus. A difficult conundrum, indeed.
After weeks of unrest, the Venezuelan government and the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) opposition coalition agreed on Tuesday to “formal talks” to end the anti-government protests.
The two sides have tentatively planned to meet on Thursday for a discussion mediated by the Vatican and the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR). The foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are also expected to attend Thursday’s meeting.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro praised the preliminary talk on Tuesday, but said his government is not willing veer away from the Bolivarian Revolution. “Neither will we try and convert them [the opposition] to Bolivarian socialism, nor will they convert us to capitalism,” Maduro said.
Leopoldo López, the recently-imprisoned leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party and member of the MUD, expressed skepticism about the talks, saying in a message published by his wife on Twitter, “I believe deeply in dialogue, but in a dialogue of equals, not [with one side] on its knees.” A new round of protests erupted on Friday after Venezuela’s attorney general charged López with inciting violence, arson, damage to property and conspiracy.
The announcement of formal talks comes two weeks after Venezuelan government troops cleared the western city of San Cristobál, where the countrywide protests began in February. Since then, 39 people have died and over 600 have been injured in the unrest.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.