Clashes between Cuban and Venezuelan dissidents and pro-government supporters marked the initial proceedings of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on Wednesday, two days before the summit officially begins. Cuba’s participation in the summit for the first time has sparked encounters between pro-Castro supporters and the Cuban exile community, many members of which are critical of Cuba’s invitation to the summit and the U.S. government’s warmed ties with the country.
A civil society forum, attended by Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, began an hour late after Cuban officials and supporters staged a protest against the presence of Cuban dissidents, whom they referred to as “mercenaries” and “terrorists,” as reported by EFE and AP. Venezuelan representatives also left the event in a show of support for the Cuban delegation.
Also on Wednesday, police reportedly arrested 12 people after supporters of the Cuban government came to blows with dissidents outside the Cuban embassy.
Cuban activists began arriving in Panama over the weekend, when it was reported that Rosa Mariá Payá, a high-profile Cuban dissident, was detained by Panamanian authorities upon her arrival in the country. Officials later released Payá and issued an apology.
Meanwhile, a protest in a Panama City park reportedly drew approximately 300 Venezuelans who demanded the release of political prisoners in their country.
Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López, arrived in Panama Wednesday alongside Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, the wife of imprisoned Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma. On Tuesday, prosecutors in Venezuela formally charged Ledezma with attempting to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro. The two women have decried what they describe as a deteriorating respect for human rights Venezuela and have called for the release of their husbands and more than opposition 30 mayors detained by the government. Tintori is reportedly expected to meet with President Bill Clinton while in Panama City.
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Luisa Ortega, the Venezuelan Attorney General, declared Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ineligible to run for parliament as a candidate for the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) until 2017. Ortega’s announcement followed a Uníon Radio interview with Jesús “Chúo” Torrealaba, executive secretary of MUD, who had received a letter from three imprisoned opposition leaders—López, former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos—on Tuesday night requesting consideration of López’ candidacy for the election.
“It’s not that it’s a null candidacy, rather that he cannot run,” said Ortega, alluding to an earlier court ruling against López. As mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas in 2005, López was banned from running for any public office, after he was accused of receiving money from the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Petroleum of Venezuela—PDVSA). Despite a hearing held by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that overturned the ruling in 2011, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the original decision.
López has been imprisoned since February 18, 2014, accused of acts against the government, including damage to public property, public incitement and unlawful assembly. An investigation is still underway for Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, who has been imprisoned since last month for his connection to two young people accused of conspiracy against the government. In both the case of Ledezma as well as Ceballos, Ortega was unable to say whether the two would be eligible for the MUD elections.
Luego de superar el único intento de golpe de Estado registrado en los últimos 15 años, el entonces presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, ordenó la detención de Henrique Capriles Radonski—un joven alcalde opositor—quien debía manejar la seguridad de la Embajada de Cuba en medio de la crisis política nacional.
El confuso incidente—Capriles afirma que intentaba mediar entre opositores y los diplomáticos de La Habana, mientras que el gobierno lo acusaba de poner en peligro a la delegación—nunca fue esclarecido. Capriles, siendo alcalde electo del municipio Baruta, permaneció cuatro meses detenido en la sede de la dirección de inteligencia sin un proceso judicial. Los cargos fueron descartados en 2006.
En 2014, Nicolás Maduro, heredero político de Chávez, y Leopoldo López, el exalcalde de Chacao, repitieron el capítulo de 2002. López, un joven economista egresado de Harvard, fue compañero de partido de Capriles durante algunos años y se convirtieron en la nueva cara de la política venezolana. Jóvenes, exitosos y con aparente ambición política, han sido blancos constantes de la “revolución bolivariana.” El año pasado el gobierno ordenó la detención de López, quien el 12 de febrero había liderado una protesta estudiantil demandando la renuncia de Maduro. Después de entregarse voluntariamente, López ha permanecido recluido en una cárcel militar, sin derecho a visitas, por un año. ¿La acusación? Golpismo.
Este jueves 19 de febrero, el jefe de Estado pidió cárcel para el alcalde mayor de Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, quien luego fue detenido por la policía política en un operativo poco claro. Doce horas después del arresto, ninguna información oficial ha sido divulgada, excepto el “Ledezma va a ser procesado” que Maduro esbozó la misma noche del jueves.
Since before the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in March 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has remained paralyzed to enact reforms needed to escape the economic dysfunction Chávez left behind.
In his latest national address on the economy on January 21, Maduro finally acknowledged the recession and shortages faced by Venezuelan citizens. Yet, he failed again to clearly implement any of the pragmatic economic reforms advocated by Rafael Ramírez, the former minister of energy and former president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Petroleum of Venezuela—PDVSA)— such as a de facto bolívar-to-dollar devaluation via unification of Venezuela’s multi-tier foreign exchange (FX) system, measures to attract more foreign financing for oil production, and removing internal price controls, especially for gasoline. Meanwhile, in September 2014, Ramírez was demoted to foreign minister, and then to UN ambassador several months later.
According to insiders, Maduro’s failure to implement pragmatic reforms stems principally from two sources. First, within the raging confrontation over economic policy between “pragmatic” and “ideological” factions of the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV), Maduro has found himself both dependent on militant chavista “colectivos,” and simultaneously at risk of these groups turning against him. These often-armed, barrio-based gangs are aligned with the PSUV’s ideological faction and have no patience for pragmatic economic reforms.
Second, Maduro faces low voter approval ratings due to the continued collapse of the Venezuelan economy. As a result, he clearly fears triggering a popular backlash against the pain that reforms would bring in the near-to-medium term—and the danger that the ideological wing of his party would seize upon any such opportunity to denounce him as a “neoliberal” and push him from power.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, defending his government’s socialist economic model and accusing the Venezuelan political opposition of waging an “economic war” that has led to the country’s current financial crisis.
That crisis has worsened in recent weeks as global oil prices have plummeted and the price of Venezuelan crude, the country's chief export, fell from $98 per barrel in 2013 to just $39 per barrel this week. Venezuela’s inflation rate, which Maduro estimated at more than 64 percent last year, is currently the highest in the Americas. The IMF’s Alejandro Werner predicted on Wednesday that Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent in 2015, and Maduro said in his speech that the economy had contracted 2.8 percent in 2014.
Maduro was expected to announce possible cuts to social spending and a devaluation of the bolivar during his speech. However, while Maduro said he was willing to consider raising the price of gasoline and restructuring the country’s three-tiered exchange rate system, he rejected the idea of a currency devaluation and instead announced that social spending would continue, promising to wage raises and pensions by 15 percent and build more low-income housing.
Supporters of Maduro’s government are expected to rally on Friday, prior to a planned opposition protest march on Saturday.
The U.S. Senate approved a bill on Monday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials found responsible for violating demonstrators’ rights during anti-government protests that left more than 40 dead and 800 injured since February. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act authorizes sanctions that would freeze assets and ban visas of individuals that authorized, directed or otherwise assisted the government in infringing on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly” of protesters.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill, which was passed by a voice vote. “For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” said Menendez. The House passed a similar bill in May with a broader number of targets, but the Obama administration insisted sanctions would interfere with negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Earlier this month, White House officials signaled they would be willing to move forward with additional sanctions.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the “insolent imperialist sanctions” and accused the U.S. of meddling in his country’s affairs. The Maduro government has already faced international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations. In May, the United Nations condemned the violence and called for the government to adhere to its human rights obligations.
The new U.S. Senate bill comes as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continues to be held in prison, while Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was recently accused of plotting to overthrow the Maduro administration. The Senate’s version of the bill must now be passed in the House, and signed by President Obama for it to become law.
The Venezuelan state prosecutor’s office formally charged former Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado with treason and conspiracy for allegedly plotting to kill President Nicolas Maduro this Wednesday.
The indictment comes after a chain of emails plotting to start a coup to overthrow the Maduro administration surfaced in May, allegedly between U.S. officials and Machado, an opposition leader who was kicked out of the National Assembly in March after she publically supported the protests against the government earlier this year. In one email Machado reportedly wrote, “I believe the time has come to join forces, make the necessary calls, and obtain the financing to annihilate Maduro […] and the rest will come falling down.”
Venezuela’s most publically known opposition leader, Leopoldo López, has been in jail since February, despite pleas for his release from international organizations, including The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), who declared his detention illegal and ordered his immediate release. Arrest orders for conspiracy against the government were also ordered for opposition figures Henrique Salas Romer, Diego Arria, Ricardo Emilio Koesling, Gustavo Tarre Briceño, Pedro Mario Burelli, and Robert Alonso.
The public prosecutor’s office released a statement threatening to punish anyone “from inside or outside national territory” with jail time should they seek to “conspire to destroy the nation’s republican political style.” If Machado is found guilty, she could face eight to 16 years in jail.
Venezuela Wins UN Security Council Seat
Venezuela secured a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in the first round of voting yesterday, earning 181 votes in support of its candidacy—52 over the 129 vote threshold it needed to clinch the seat. The win was trumpeted by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a sign that the broader international community holds the country—which is caught in dire economic straits and has been roundly criticized for its record on human rights—in high esteem. “We are a country beloved and admired by the whole world,” Maduro is reported to have said upon receiving news of the ballot results.
Venezuela’s last bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, in 2006, was strongly opposed by the U.S. and ultimately foundered. This year the country ran unopposed to fill the one available seat on the council from Latin America, and received unanimous support from a caucus of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations. Significantly, the Obama administration did not mount a diplomatic campaign against the country’s bid, despite calls by U.S. lawmakers for such an effort.
However, Venezuela’s win has provoked some criticism. After the vote, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said in a statement that “Venezuela’s conduct at the UN has run counter to the spirit of the UN Charter, and its violations of human rights at home are at odds with the Charter’s letter.” According to the UN Director of Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, “The security council’s new membership could prove more problematic on human rights issues, with several generally rights-friendly countries leaving and others coming on board with poor voting records.” Venezuela’s election to the Security Council comes just weeks after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions called on the country to release opposition political leader, Leopoldo López.
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.
This week’s likely top stories: World leaders gather for the UN General Assembly; Leopoldo López’ trial resumes in Venezuela; U.S. to approve aid to El Salvador; 8 killed in Guatemala conflict over cement plant; Clorox discontinues operations in Venezuela.
World leaders converge in New York; thousands march for action on climate change: Some 140 heads of state have arrived in New York City to participate in the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, where the General Debate opens on Wednesday, September 24. Along with U.S. President Barack Obama, the presidents of Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic and Honduras are expected to speak on Wednesday, followed by more speeches from Latin American leaders throughout the week. Meanwhile, this Sunday, over 300,000 demonstrators marched through Manhattan to call for international leaders to take action regarding climate change. The march came ahead of Tuesday’s 2014 UN Climate Summit, where world leaders will be discussing ways to reduce emissions, promote sustainable agricultural practices, and develop clean energy, among other goals, and large companies will be making pledges to reduce their carbon footprint. This week’s summit comes ahead of two global summits on climate change in Peru and France—the COP20 conference in Lima in December, and the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015.
Leopoldo López goes to trial: The trial of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López will resume today over López’ role in the national protests that rocked Venezuela this spring. López has been imprisoned for seven months on charges that he had incited violent protests in February, including charges of criminal association and arson. López and his family have maintained his innocence, and human rights groups have said that López and other Venezuelan political prisoners should be released. Until now, López’ defense team has not been allowed to produce evidence or witnesses to support his case. López could face more than 13 years in prison if he is found guilty.
U.S. will provide $277 in aid to El Salvador: The U.S. is expected to sign off on a $277 million economic aid package for El Salvador now that the U.S. Treasury Department has confirmed that it will not hold up the funds due to its concerns about money laundering. El Salvador is currently in the process of reforming its standards to police money laundering and corruption more effectively, recently passing a bill to report on the financial transactions of powerful individuals and their families. $101 million of the U.S. aid package has been allocated to provide job training for young Salvadorans who might otherwise leave the country and migrate to the United States.
Clash over cement factory in Guatemala kills 8: At least eight people were killed and dozens injured in a clash late Friday between community members in the town of Los Pajoques, about 25 miles from Guatemala City. The chain of violent events is one in a series of conflicts surrounding a cement plant and highway that have been under construction in the town of San Juan Sacatepéquez since July 2013, and that many community members oppose due to environmental concerns. Cementos Progreso, which owns the plant, said that its employees and the families that have sold their land have been harassed by the plant’s opponents. Meanwhile, protesters who have opposed the project since 2007 say that they have received threats from people they believe are affiliated with the project.
Clorox to leave Venezuela: Clorox Company announced today that it will immediately discontinue its operations in Venezuela due to hyperinflation, supply shortages and price freezes. The company is seeking to sell its assets, but the move will cost Clorox $65 million. The household products company said that the economic situation in Venezuela forced Clorox to sell products at a loss, and the company could not break even, despite price increases approved earlier this year by the Venezuelan government. A number of other U.S. companies, including Exxon Mobil and American Airlines, have either left Venezuela entirely or drastically cut their operations in the country.