On February 20, a day after Venezuelan security agents smashed into the office of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and arrested him on conspiracy charges, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff referred to the mayor’s detention as a Venezuelan “internal matter.” Later, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released two bland statements in line with Rousseff’s comment, expressing concern and reaffirming Brazil’s commitment to act as a mediator.
This reaction was not dissimilar to the response of other important regional players, like Chile and México. Only Colombia’s tone was a bit harsher, perhaps because the country was mentioned in the accusations against Ledezma. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denied his country’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy and made a plea that the rights of opposition members be respected.
But Ledezma’s rights had been violated even during his arrest. A group of armed officers stormed the mayor’s office and forcefully dragged him away without an arrest warrant. Ledezma was indicted the next day on charges of conspiracy to help plot an American-backed coup. Five days after the arrest, a police officer shot and killed a teenage boy during an anti-government protest in the city of San Cristóbal, the epicenter of nation-wide demonstrations last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. The boy’s death spurred sporadic protests in different cities, ratcheting up tension in a country that, alongside political turmoil, is experiencing a severe economic crisis.
Like his predecessor Hugo Chávez, President Nicolás Maduro regularly denounces coup plots and plans to assassinate him. A study by Últimas Noticias, a newspaper based in Caracas, counted 63 allegations of assassination plots during Chávez’s 14-year presidency. Since he took power in 2013, Maduro has already denounced 16 conspiracies. To justify Ledezma’s arrest, Maduro cited a document signed by the Caracas mayor and other opposition leaders calling for the establishment of a broad-based transitional government to solve the current crisis. The document itself proves no conspiracy, though its use against Ledezma evidences the lack of freedom of speech in Venezuela.
As in the past, the latest crackdown is likely a desperate attempt by the government to divert attention from Venezuela’s internal ills. The collapse of oil prices and ruinous economic policies have left the government confronting the country’s worst crisis in more than a decade. The IMF has predicted that Venezuela’s gross domestic product will contract seven percent in 2015. The inflation rate is almost 70 percent, the fastest growing in the world. A deliriously dysfunctional price and currency exchange control system has provoked keen shortages of basic staples, with hundreds of people lining up daily outside supermarkets and pharmacies. People have reportedly died in hospitals because of the lack of medicine.
As a result, Maduro’s popularity plunged to 22 percent in early January. This means chavismo could be crushed in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Will Maduro suspend elections or turn them into a meaningless Cuban-style charade to avoid defeat?
During the last year, Venezuela has been rapidly sliding towards an old-style military dictatorship, in which serious human rights violations have become ever more prevalent. Ledezma’s arrest came a year after high-profile opposition leader Leopoldo López was jailed on trumped-up charges for his alleged involvement in inciting violence during last year’s protests. María Corina Machado, another prominent politician, was also charged in December with plotting to assassinate Maduro. Thirty-three of Venezuela’s 78 opposition mayors are currently facing some sort of legal action. Last week, Maduro made the implicit threat almost explicit: He said that if opposition members are involved in promoting violence, he would not permit them to participate in the parliamentary elections.
The arrest of Ledezma has offered Maduro an opportunity to test domestic and international tolerance for his increasingly authoritarian behavior. And the timid reaction of Venezuela’s neighbors might have emboldened him to push forward with his repressive tactics. Chavista legislators are now calling for a probe of yet another prominent opposition leader, Julio Borges. Three days after Ledezma was sent to a military prison, squatters protected by pro-government militia and soldiers took over the Caracas headquarters of the opposition party COPEI.
Reacting to the mayor’s detention, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch José Miguel Vivanco said that “the only hope” for Venezuela is a firm reaction from the international community. But a firm reaction from the U.S. and Europe is meaningless if Latin American countries—especially the regional powerhouse, Brazil—limit their actions to the release of statements that avoid crossing Maduro’s regime.
Moderate and radical parties within the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), an opposition umbrella group, are fully committed to participating in the elections. If Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors refuse to call for an end to repression and Ledezma’s release, they should at least make clear that barring opposition candidates and parties from the parliamentary elections would be unacceptable.