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.
The Venezuelan government opened an investigation against U.S.-based television network TNT on Tuesday because of the depiction of President Nicolás Maduro on the fictional spy drama “Legends.” In the third episode of the season, the Venezuelan executive is accused of stockpiling chemical weapons to use against anti-government protestors, referencing the protests that engulfed Venezuela in February.
On Monday night, Venezuela’s Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez requested via Twitter that Conatel—the South American country’s national telecommunications commission—open an investigation because of the “lies and manipulations” against President Maduro on the series. Fox 21, the producer of the series, apologized to President Maduro in an official statement, emphasizing that the representation of the president was purely fictional and that producers “did not intend to imply that the show was reporting any actual events.”
President Maduro’s approval rating dropped 15 points to 35 percent in the past nine months amid the continued economic crisis that sparked the initial mass protests, according to a recent Datanálisis poll. While the Central Bank of Venezuela has not released economic data since May, the research firm Ecoanalítica has indicated that with its shrinking GDP, limited foreign currency, and car manufacturing collapse, the country is headed toward a recession.
The U.S. has issued a travel ban for a list of unnamed Venezuelan officials who are accused of involvement in human rights abuses after the Venezuelan military and police cracked down on anti-government protests earlier this year.
The ban affects 24 high-ranking officials from Venezuela, ranging from cabinet members and senior judiciary members to members of the military and the police. Venezuelan Foreign Minister and former Vice President Elías Jaua called the move “desperate” and a “reprisal… against the role that Venezuela plays in a new world, in an independent Latin America.”
Diplomatic tensions between the United States and Venezuela had already worsened after a former general and aid to Hugo Chávez, Hugo Carvajal—accused by the United States of drug trafficking and supporting left-wing guerrillas in Colombia—was released from Aruba on Monday. U.S. concerns that Caracas had pressured the Dutch government to release the formal general were confirmed by the chief prosecutor of Aruba, Peter Blanken, but Blanken emphasized that Carvajal was released because of “diplomatic immunity,” and not because of the “actions against Aruba from the Venezuelan government.”
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the executive secretary of the opposition’s Mesa de la Unidad (Democratic Unity Roundtable–MUD), Ramón Aveledo, resigned from his post on Tuesday, citing the need to renew the opposition movement. Aveledo, who had lead MUD for five years, was responsible for uniting Venezuela’s fractious opposition. Earlier this year, at least 43 people were killed during protests led by students and the political opposition.
In the 2014 Summer issue of Americas Quarterly, Boris Muñoz examines the challenges that Venezuela is facing in his article, Venezuela: How Long Can This Go On?
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet unexpectedly canceled her trip to Venezuela for today’s Mercosur Summit yesterday afternoon. Alvaro Elizalde, a spokesman for the Bachelet administration, confirmed that Heraldo Muñoz, Minister of Foreign Affairs, will represent the Chilean delegation at the summit in Caracas.
In addition to the Mercosur meetings, Muñoz will also meet with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and with the Venezuelan opposition coalition Mesa De Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Coalition–MUD), at their request.
Muñoz is expected to express Chile’s interest in restarting and facilitating the stalled peace negotiations between MUD and the Venezuelan government. It is unclear whether he will address the continued imprisonment of opposition leader and former mayor Leopoldo López of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party.
President Bachelet’s absence was attributed to a winter cold and emergency meetings regarding her signature tax, healthcare and education reform.
Caracas announced yesterday its opposition to the “illegal and arbitrary” arrest of former Venezuelan general, Hugo Carvajal in the Dutch-administered Caribbean island Aruba. While Carvajal–ex-director of military intelligence in Venezuela and personal advisor of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez–awaited his approval as consul in Aruba, he was detained on Wednesday night at the request of the U.S. government for his supposed involvement in drug-trafficking and support of the Colombian guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–FARC).
Carvajal was involved Chávez’s first coup attempt in 1992 and served as the military intelligence chief from 2004 to 2011. In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Carvajal and other Veneuzlean military officials accusing them smuggling cocaine and providing weapons to FARC rebels. He has also been accused of providing protection and documents of identification for Colombian cartel leaders, including Wílber Varela, in Venezuelan territory.
Although Venezuelan authorities declared the capture illegal because General Carvajal had a diplomatic passport, the Dutch government had never approved of his appointment. The U.S. has have 60 days make a formal request for request an extradition of the former general.
Carvajal is one of three former high-ranking officials from Chávez’s administration that have been charged in drug-trafficking cases. Benny Palmeri-Bacchi, one of these former officials, was arrested upon his arrival in Miami, and yesterday pleaded not guilty to protecting a drug-trafficker who brought cocaine from Venezuela to the United States.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.