Tag Archives: maduro

Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

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Before Thursday’s jaw-dropping 77-minute free-form press conference, US president Donald Trump made a rare foray into Latin American politics on Wednesday night, publicly calling for the release of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader imprisoned by the chavista government since 2014. Venezuela Flag Icon

It was a surprising move by Trump, who was having dinner Wednesday night with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, and Florida senator Marco Rubio. Trump joins many figures from across the political spectrum over the last three years, including former US president Barack Obama and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who renewed calls to release López on Thursday.

López, on the third anniversary of his arrest, is now at the heart of the Venezuelan opposition struggle in its daunting task of removing an increasingly undemocratic chavista regime through democratic means. Despite Trump’s call on Twitter to free López, a Venezuelan appeals court upheld the opposition leader’s sentence Thursday morning, and foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez chided Trump in response.

In February 2014, when protestors were already taking to the streets against Maduro’s government (and when the economic situation, though dire, was far better than today), López was leading the way calling for peaceful protests in hopes of toppling the government through show of popular disapproval. Those protests, however, turned deadly when police deployed lethal force against the protesters and 43 people died. López was promptly arrested and, months later in September 2015, found guilty of public incitement of violence.  His imprisonment is widely considered to be politically motivated by international groups and figures ranging from the United Nations to the Dalai Lama, and his arrest was one of the reasons why the South American trading bloc, MERCOSUR, suspended Venezuela’s membership in December 2016, citing problems with human rights and the rule of law.  Continue reading Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)
J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)

If you haven’t had a chance yet, you should drop everything to read the amazing 4500-word-plus scoop from Bloomberg about the potentially criminal role of hacking in the political universe of J.J. Rendón and his still-unclear ties to Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian hacker now serving a decade-long prison sentence for hacking, espionage and other crimes related to the 2014 Colombian election.Mexico Flag IconColombia Flag Icon

Even if you take Sepúlveda’s accusations with a fair share of skepticism, that he’s sitting in jail and subject to such heavy security from the Colombian government lends at least some credence — and the chicanery in that 2014 election is only one example in a story that looks and feels like it was ripped right out of the latest season of House of Cards:

He says he wants to tell his story because the public doesn’t grasp the power hackers exert over modern elections or the specialized skills needed to stop them. “I worked with presidents, public figures with great power, and did many things with absolutely no regrets because I did it with full conviction and under a clear objective, to end dictatorship and socialist governments in Latin America,” he says. “I have always said that there are two types of politics—what people see and what really makes things happen. I worked in politics that are not seen.”

The very mention of Rendón’s name can strike fear into the heart of an opponent in any Latin American election. He’s been called the ‘Karl Rove’ of Latin America and, it’s true, he’s helped dozens of center-right candidates win office. He helped boost Juan Manuel Santos, both when he was minister of defense in Colombia, and in the 2010 election, in which Santos won the presidency.

In 2014, however, after Santos launched landmark peace talks with FARC and Santos’s one-time mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, turned on Santos, Sepúlveda found himself working for a right-wing opponent Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who wanted to end the peace talks. Though Zuluaga narrowly won the first round, Santos triumphed in the runoff, and the talks have deepened and progressed in Santos’s second term. (Rendón was working for Santos, though he resigned after accusations linking him financially to drug cartels.)

It’s not just Colombia, though. Continue reading Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

'Socialism' may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.
‘Socialism’ may be at the heart of chavismo and the Sanders campaign, but they come from two very different political traditions.

One of the more popular comparisons of critics of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is between the brand of ‘democratic socialism’ that Sanders has espoused in his Democratic presidential campaign and Venezuelan-style socialism.Venezuela Flag IconUSflag

But for reasons I’ll describe below, it’s a facile and wrong-headed comparison, and it’s an insult both to Sanders and to the Venezuelan opposition that’s struggling so hard against something much more insidious than just ‘democratic socialism.’

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RELATED: Eight things Americans should know about the Danish (and Nordic) welfare state

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Sanders has looked to countries like Sweden and Denmark, arguing that the US social welfare net should look more like the Nordic social welfare net. Those are countries that, by and large, conduct free and fair elections with a firm dividing line between government and party, squeaky-clean transparency, a tradition both of consensus-building  and more recently, a reformist nudge that’s tried to retool creaking social welfare system toward more competition and liberalism.

No one disputes Venezuela’s problems, which faces today probably the globe’s most painful economic crisis. They are immense.

But it didn’t get there through Scandinavian-style socialism. Or social democracy. Or democratic socialism.  Continue reading The comparison between Sanders and Venezuela is misguided and facile

Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

Henry Ramos Allup is set to become the next president of Venezuela’s National Assembly today.

Without a doubt, the victory of the anti-chavista opposition in the December 6 elections was one of the most improbable and most impressive wins in world politics in 2015.Venezuela Flag Icon

With a two-thirds majority that the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is still trying to defend from attacks from the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the opposition today took control of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), the legislative branch of Venezuela’s government. That will continue to be true, no matter if the PSUV tries to invalidate a handful of MUD deputies or if president Nicolas Maduro tries to create an alternative chavista-dominated popular assembly.

For the first time since 1999, the chavistas haven’t controlled the National Assembly. Naturally, it was a momentous occasion. For now, the Venezuelan people seem firmly behind the opposition, in the hopes that they can push Maduro toward reforms to provide economic relief after years of socialist policies and, perhaps more damningly, widespread corruption, handouts to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua and mismanagement of PdVSA, the state petroleum company, which has only accelerated losses stemming from the global decline in oil prices.

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RELATED: Venezuela’s opposition supermajority must prioritize recalling Maduro

RELATED: No matter who wins, the December 6 elections will not be chavismo‘s last stand

RELATED: A primer on the MUD, Venezuela’s broad opposition coalition

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But that’s also why it’s so disappointing that the MUD coalition chose as the president of the National Assembly the 72-year-old Henry Ramos Allup, a longtime fixture on the Venezuelan opposition and a throwback to the ancien régime that proved so corrupt and incapable that it opened the path to Hugo Chávez’s perfectly democratic election to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998.

Let’s start with the good news. Ramos Allup, it’s true, was chosen through a democratic process, an internal vote among the 112 MUD deputies. He easily defeated Julio Borges, another opposition figure close to former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, by a vote of 63 to 49 over the weekend. He’s one of the few figures within the opposition to have some experience of Venezuelan governance before chavismo and, truth be told, he’s a tough and wily character who will not easily be rolled. (Though, almost immediately after the new majority took power in the National Assembly, the chavista deputies, including the former Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, promptly walked out).

Then again, for an opposition that hopes to present itself as a fresh movement of good government and reform capable to bringing change to Venezuela, it’s a curious choice. Continue reading Venezuela’s disappointing new legislative leader is only slightly better than chavismo

No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

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Despite a late surge in the election campaign, socialist president Nicolás Maduro still faces a major defeat in this weekend’s elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly.

In a set of free and fair elections, it would not be difficult to predict that Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition would win a wide majority in December 6’s legislative elections; for many Venezuelans, despite marked disadvantages, the question is not whether the opposition will win, but by how much.Venezuela Flag Icon

That doesn’t mean the anti-chavista coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable) is anywhere near taking real power in Venezuela. No matter what happens, on December 7, Venezuelans will still wake up to president Nicolás Maduro, the oft-ridiculed successor to the late Hugo Chávez. Maduro only narrowly won the presidency in April 2013, following Chávez’s death, and Venezuela’s economy, already in dire trouble two years ago, has failed dramatically ever since.

What’s more, short of a massive supermajority, Venezuela will be gridlocked for the next three years when the next presidential election will held, at a time when its economy has reached crisis-level proportions of failure.

Dependence on oil revenues meant that even before global oil prices plummeted, Venezuelans were facing shortages of basic products, from food to medical supplies to toilet paper, and inevitable scenes of government-mandated rationing. Massive inflation, in tandem with an unofficially depreciating currency, has inflicted even greater economic pain for a country dependent on foreign imports, at least for those without access to US dollars. The economy is expected to contract by as much as 10% in a single year, making Venezuela’s the worst-performing in the world in 2015. Earlier this spring, conditions were so bad that chavista supporters took to throwing mangoes at Maduro at political events in desperate search of basic necessities. Maduro, meanwhile, has campaigned hard on Chávez’s memory and fear tactics that the opposition will reverse the government’s many social welfare programs.

Voters will be choosing all 167 members of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), where the chavistas currently hold 99 seats, while the opposition coalition holds just 64.  Yet few observers believe that the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the chavista party that for 16 years has governed the country in a way that’s blurred the line between political and governance activity, can win a majority in the elections. Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polls, pitted the opposition coalition’s support at over 63%, with just 28% support for the chavistas in an October poll. Over at Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro argues that, for the first time in years, the December 6 elections represent the re-introduction of ‘politics’ to Venezuelan life.

But for a country where chavismo has now become so entrenched in its government and commerce, no one knows for sure exactly what the MUD’s margin of victory might be and how many seats it will ultimately procure. Under the dual voting system, most members are elected in single-seat districts, while 30% are elected by closed-list proportional representation. Rural areas, where the poorest voters support Maduro and chavismo more strongly for the generous social welfare programs introduced since 1999, are over-represented, as compared to urban areas, where the opposition’s support is strongest. A simply majority will give the opposition less power than a three-fifths majority or a two-thirds majority, with which the MUD could even forced a recall referendum against Maduro.  Continue reading No matter who wins, Sunday’s elections will not be chavismo’s last stand

Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle

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Since 2004, Rafael Ramírez has served as the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), the country’s state-owned oil company, and since 2002, Ramírez has served as Venezuela’s energy/oil minister. Venezuela Flag Icon

That all changed on Tuesday, when president Nicolás Maduro announced a reshuffle of his government, the most significant since his controversial and narrow election in April 2013.

Ramírez, after Maduro and after Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), was the most powerful of the chavistas remaining in government in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s death almost exactly 18 months ago. Since that time, Ramírez became, in addition to PdVSA head and oil minister, vice president in charge of economic affairs.

A longtime old hand within chavismo, he was among the most pragmatic and moderate of the chavistas. Ramírez may have run Venezuela’s oil industry into the ground, and he may have been as corrupt as anyone in Venezuela’s government. But he didn’t radiate the kind of socialist, true-believer aura of other leading chavistas, such as former planning minister Jorge Giordani and former foreign minister Elías Jaua.

In the Maduro era, Ramírez endorsed reforms, such as reducing the gasoline subsidy that keeps the price of fueling Venezuelan cars lower than anywhere else in the world and otherwise liberalizing the economy, including with respect to the massively overvalued bolívar

Asdrúbal Chávez, the cousin of the late former president, will become the next oil minister, while PdVSA engineer and executive Eulegio Del Pino, a close Ramírez ally, will be the oil company’s next president.

Though he was simultaneously named foreign minister, it’s hard to see how Ramírez hasn’t suffered a demotion for a country where 97% of foreign earnings derive from oil. As PdVSA head, in particular, Ramírez controlled the most enviable element of Venezuelan economic policymaking — he controlled the profits.  So while the move to foreign minister would be a promotion for many ambitious politicians, in Venezuela, it’s a way of sidelining Ramírez.  Continue reading Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle

ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

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Whenever I go to México City, I marvel at the way its indigenous history integrates into the fabric of the city. Nahuatl words, like ‘Chapultepec,’ meaning grasshopper, and ‘Xochimilco,’ a neighborhood featuring a series of Aztec-created canals, pepper the geography of the city. Those are just two of hundreds of daily reminders rooting Latin America’s largest modern megapolis of 8.9 million in the language and traditions of its pre-Columbian past. It’s where the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young Nahuatl-speaking girl, apparently revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin Mary, instructing him to build a church, launching one of the most compelling hybrid religious followings in the New World. Even the inhabitants of the notorious Tepito barrio worship Santa Muerte on the first of November with bright flowers, cacophanous marimba and not a small amount of marijuana, in celebration of the magical chasm between what is, for many Tepito residents, a gritty life and an often grittier death.

It’s the way that México City blends the mysterious and the mundane, matches the sacred with the profane and so blends the line between the indigenous and conquistador that it’s hard to know who conquered what. For all of those reasons, I often think of it as the unofficial capital of realismo magico.

So it’s natural to me that the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, made his home in México City for much of the last six decades of his life. It’s also where García Márquez died on April 17 at age 87.

It was his uncanny ability to blend the realistic with the magical that largely won him such adoration worldwide. But what makes the writing of García Márquez and the other authors of the 1960s Latin American Boom so electrifying to me is the way that it blended the literary with the political. Certainly, García Márquez’s writing was about family, about love, about solitude, about power, about loss, about fragility, about all of these universal themes. But his writing also explicated many of the themes that we today associate with Latin America’s culture, identity, history and politics.

His death wasn’t entirely unexpected. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer all the way back in 1999 and by the beginning of the 2010s, he rarely made public appearances anymore due to the grim advance of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I made it to Latin America for the first time, he was already approaching 80, and I knew I’d have little chance of meeting him.

That’s fine by me, because I always considered him, through his work, my own personal ambassador to Latin America. Over the course of several treks through Latin America, Gabo still accompanied me through his writing — and along the way, he shaped my own framework for how I think about Latin American life.

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(8) Going up the Argentine Andes 2

When I was planning my first trip to Latin America, I brought with me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I saved the novel for this very occasion, a trek from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then by bus over the Andes to Santiago. Technically speaking, I was on the wrong end of the continent for García Márquez. I packed some Neruda, some Allende and some Borges — and some Cortázar, too (mea culpa, I still haven’t clawed enough time to read Hopscotch).

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Nevertheless, García Márquez’s words transcended the setting of his native Colombia. Hundred Years, published in 1967, just six years after the Cuban revolution that undeniably marked a turning point in its relationship with the behemoth world power to the north, it came at a time when Latin American identity seemed limitless, and García Márquez mined a new consciousness that wasn’t necessarily Colombian or even South American. So much of the story of Colombia’s development from the colonial era through the present day is also cognizably Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican or Argentinian. After all, García Márquez, already a well-known figure, went on a writing strike when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, ousting the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was shot on September 11, the day of the coup.

It was an intoxicating read. The sleek brown corduroy blazer I picked up in Buenos Aires with the affected hint of epaulets on the shoulders soon became what I called my ‘Colonel Aureliano’ jacket. Besides, where better to buy a Spanish language copy of his work than El Ateneo, perhaps the most amazing bookstore in the world?

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Hundred Years, of course, came highly recommended from the world that had discovered García Márquez decades before I was even born. It became an instant hit upon publication, catapulting García Márquez’s popularity beyond his more established peers, including México’s Carlos Fuentes and Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, confesses to zoning out of class one day in law school to finish it:  Continue reading ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

Politics turns violent in Venezuela

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Though critics can dump a lot of problems on the doorstep of Hugo Chávez’s 14-year reign as president of Venezuela, the one thing that you can’t say about Chávez is that he used state violence (as opposed to expropriation, media censorship or other tactics) to undermine Venezuela’s rule of law, excepting perhaps the aborted April 2002 coup, a complex incident in Venezuelan politics in which neither the Venezuelan military, the Chávez administration nor the Venezuelan opposition was entirely blameless.Venezuela Flag Icon

It’s hard to extend the same credit to Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, in light of the violence against protestors in Caracas, Valencia and elsewhere across Venezuela last night.

A 22-year-old beauty queen, Génesis Carmona, was shot in the head in central Valencia Tuesday night, the fifth fatality in a series of escalating student protests against the Maduro government — the photo above shows Altamira, a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Caracas that’s seen some of the most tense confrontations of the past 48 hours.

Venezuela’s oil production allowed Chávez to circumvent violent repression by using money to buy and consolidate his support among his natural base — Venezuela’s poorest citizens who hadn’t benefitted from the petrostate’s largesse (and, increasingly, a corrupt ‘boligarchy’ whose continued prosperity depends on the continuity of the chavista regime).

Though the February 2014 protests aren’t as widespread as the ones that led to the 2002 coup against Chávez, economic conditions are much poorer today in Venezuela than they were 12 years ago, when Chávez was just three years into his presidency and the country exported more oil — and other products — than it does today.  The fact that five people are dead, with many more injured, is a serious escalation in a country where, though political polarization has been common for the past decade and a half, political killing has not.  Maduro’s government is censoring the media even more than usual, putting much of Caracas on lockdown and arresting protestors by the truckload.  Most fundamentally, governments in truly liberal democracies do not respond to political protest with lethal violence.  Chávez could point to legitimate majoritarian support throughout the entirety of his presidency, even if it obscured the deterioration of the rule of law and public institutions.  By contrast, Maduro’s increasingly violent response to protest underlines the fragility (or, perhaps, the illegitimacy) of his political support.  Continue reading Politics turns violent in Venezuela

Will Venezuela or Argentina be the first to crumble into economic crisis?

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I write tomorrow for The National Interest about the dual economic crises in Venezuela and Argentina.argentinaVenezuela Flag Icon

The similarities between the two economic crises are uncanny — inflation, capital controls, dollar shortages, overvalued currencies, shortages, etc.

But the similarities don’t stop there.  Both countries currently fee political limitations to force policy changes to avert crisis — and that limit the political capital of the leaders of both countries, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to enact reforms:

Accordingly, normal political channels seem blocked through at least the end of 2015, despite the fact that both countries should be considering massive economic policy u-turns that will require significant amounts of political goodwill neither Maduro nor Fernández de Kirchner possess. But there’s an even greater inertia lurking beyond even the routine political impasse—a kind of political dead-hand control in both countries, on both a short-term and long-term basis.

First, both Venezuela and Argentina remain tethered to the political ideologies of chavismoand kirchnerismo, even though their proponents, Chávez and Néstor Kirchner, are now dead. Those policies may have worked over the last decade to achieve certain goals, including greater social welfare and poverty reduction in Venezuela and a rapid return to economic growth and competitive exports for Argentina. But it should be clear by now that chavismoand kirchnerismo are unable to provide answers to their respective countries’ economic woes today.

Even more broadly, I argue that beyond the shortcomings of chavismo and kirchnerismo, Venezuela faces a long-term resources curse and Argentina faces the long-term legacy of protectionism and statism of peronismo, which in each case underlie the current economic crises.  What’s more, the IMF-sponsored reforms in 1989 that led to the massive Caracazo riots in Venezuela and the IMF-approved lending tied to Argentina’s 1990s ‘convertibility’ crisis that led to the 1999-2001 peso crisis have undermined orthodox economic policymaking:

What’s more, ill-conceived attempts to rupture those dominant paradigms through orthodox ‘Washington consensus’ reform processes led to economic and political disaster. In both countries, leaders experimented with neoliberalism, facilitated by the misguided zeal of the International Monetary Fund, without enacting any corresponding safety nets or shock absorbers. The resulting crises led both countries to double down on their prevailing ideologies, thereby, ironically, making economic reform today even more difficult.

In both cases, the political, historical and economic legacies have prevented the broadly moderate, business-friendly, social democratic middle courses that much of the rest of South America has embraced to wide success, including Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil.

Chavismo offers no solutions for Venezuela’s violent crime

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Though Venezuela’s crumbling economy was the top issue in 2013, the country’s violent crime rate is now topping the 2014 agenda after the horrific murder of Mónica Spear, the 29-year-old television star and 2004’s Miss Venezuela, and her ex-husband were shot in an attempted robbery, after their car broke down on a highway Monday night.Venezuela Flag Icon

Violent crime in Venezuela didn’t spring up overnight, but even president Nicolás Maduro admits that 2013 saw a rise in crime.  But it’s been on the rise throughout the chavista era.  It’s a topic that I discussed earlier today on Fusion’s America with Jorge Ramos (in my first-ever live television interview — next time, I need to know where to put my eyes!).

When Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1999, he and his advisors thought that reducing crime in Venezuela was a matter of reducing poverty and inequality.  For all the faults of chavismo, you can point to a substantial reduction in poverty and inequality since 1999, though there’s obviously some debate as to whether the chavistas accomplished that goal in the most efficient, effective or sustainable manner.

Yet even as poverty decreased, violent crime increased steadily over the Chávez era.  Official figures aren’t available (and it’s doubtful they would be reliable even if they were), but Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia, an NGO that tracks violent crime, claims that the homicide rate is 79 per 100,000 — a rise in 2013 from a rate of 73 in 2012.  That makes Venezuela second only to Honduras, with a 2012 homicide rate of 91.6 per 100,000.

If there’s one point to take away about the link between poverty and violent crime, it’s that the poorest Venezuelans are more likely to be victims of crime themselves.  Crime is higher in the cities than in the countryside, and it is highest yet in the barrios of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas — you’re much likelier to be murdered in the more lawless neighborhoods in the mountains overlooking downtown Caracas than in the wealthier and safer valley below.  While every murder is a tragedy, Spear’s death is just one of tens of thousands annually.  Justice rarely comes for many of those anonymous victims and their families, given that crimes are rarely investigated and even more rarely prosecuted.

Crime is a complex sociological phenomenon, so it’s not easy to point to one variable in particular as its direct cause.  Poverty may play a role, but it’s not a matter of ‘if x, then y.’  In the case of Venezuela, the more relevant factors include a high gun ownership rate, corruption and low trust in public institutions, and a climate of political polarization.  But the biggest factor is the weakening of the rule of the law over the past 15 years.

As Juan Nagel writes in Foreign Policy, Venezuela has very few judges and prosecutors, and many of them are corrupt.  Policemen and other officials commonly take bribes.  Jails are overcrowded and controlled by the criminals locked inside them. No one has much faith in the justice system.  If you look at the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Venezuela is ranked 160. Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are tied for dead-last at 175.  That should tell you quite a bit about Venezuela’s culture of impunity.  It’s not just the justice system, either.  It’s the kind of ‘democracy’ whereby all of the state organs, from state media to the electoral commission to the courts to Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the state oil company, have all been politicized and are today essentially levers to boost chavismo.  It’s the kind of ad hoc economic policymaking where rules change from one day to the next, or the Venezuelan president can expropriate a business or nationalize an industry on a whim.  That, too, corrodes the rule of law.

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That’s also why there’s very little chance that Maduro or any chavista regime is likely to reverse the decade-long trend of greater violent crime.  Despite a high-profile photo op with opposition leader and Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles (pictured above), Maduro (like Chávez before him) has worked to strip municipal and state governments of much of their autonomy by consolidating power over local budgets under the national government.  That’s especially true for states and municipalities controlled by the opposition. Continue reading Chavismo offers no solutions for Venezuela’s violent crime

14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

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Though I rang in the new year with a list of 14 world elections to watch in the coming year (and 14 more honorable mentions to keep an eye on), I wanted to showcase a few more thoughts about what to watch for in world politics and foreign affairs in 2014.

Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem.  No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014.  Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).

There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.

Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.

We start in France… Continue reading 14 potential game-changers for world politics in 2014

LIBRE, Nasralla could leave no party with majority in Honduran Congress

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TEGUCIGALPA — One of the most interesting aspects of the birth of the new leftist Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE, Party of Liberty and Refoundation) in Honduras has been the way it’s opened the door to a new multipolar political system where there had once been just two traditional parties.honduras flag icon

The general consensus is that LIBRE is here to stay, no matter if its presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya wins the November 24 presidential election.  One of the reasons for its staying power is the likelihood that LIBRE remains very much in a three-way fight for seats to the Congreso Nacional (National Congress), Honduras’s 128-member unicameral legislature.

In the past, the predominance of the conservative Partido Nacional (PN, National Party) and the centrist Partido Liberal (PL, Liberal Party) meant that the winner of the presidential election could typically count upon a narrow victory in the National Congress as well.

But this year’s multi-party race means that there’s a real chance no party will win absolute control of the National Congress.  While parties have failed to win an absolute majority in the past, the leading party has always fallen short by just a handful of seats.  This year, the largest bloc could fall 10 or 20 seats short, given Honduras’s electoral system.

That means that the ultimate winner of the presidential election will face an immediate challenge of assembling a majority coalition.  Given that many members of the Liberal Party and the National Party teamed up to support the 2009 coup against former president Manuel Zelaya and the ensuing interim regime of Roberto Micheletti, that could mean trouble if Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the former president, wins on Sunday.  If the two traditional parties team up against her for the next four years, she would face a presidency of gridlock and a narrower mandate.

Other Hondurans believe that the ultimate winner could easily trade economic or political favors to buy — or at least rent — a congressional majority.

“The correct thing would have been to reform the electoral law, and to create a second round so that alliances could be formed,” said Germán Leitzelar, a former labor minister between 2002 and 2006 and a congressman representing the Partido Innovación y Unidad (PINU, Innovation and Unity Party).  “Now, there won’t be any alliances, but there will be ‘economical understandings.’  It will be an agreement based on convenience, and not based on the best interests of the country.”

The National Party’s presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, is currently the president of the National Congress, where the National Party controls 71 seats to just 45 seats for the Liberal Party.  Hernández’s wide majority makes him, in key ways, more powerful than outgoing Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and he’s used his perch as congressional president to push through key legislation, including the ‘charter city’ law (subsequently overturned by the Honduran supreme court), a new security fee and the creation this autumn of a new military police.

But that’s not atypical.  Since the return of regularly scheduled elections in 1981, the party that’s won the presidency has also won the largest share of seats in the National Congress.  Between 2006 and 2009, Zelaya could count on 62 seats in the National Congress, just shy of an absolute majority.  Between 2002 and 2006, former president Ricardo Maduro’s National Party controlled 61 seats.

What’s more, the congressional presidency has long been a stepping stone to the presidency — Lobo Sosa held the office between 2002 and 2006, Liberal president Carlos Flores held the office for four years prior to his election in 1997, and Rafael Pineda, the 2001 Liberal presidential candidate, also held the office.

If Hernández wins the presidency and the National Party claims dominance over the National Congress as well, the top two candidates to become the next congressional president are Lena Gutiérrez (pictured above, center) and Rigoberto Chang Castillo (pictured above, left).

Gutiérrez, at age 36, is a rising star of the Honduran right, and currently the first vice president of the National Congress.  Fluent in English, Gutiérrez studied engineering at the Texas A&M University.  She entered the National Congress in 2009, and she’s focused mainly on laws boosting education and development.  Chang Castillo, a Tegucigalpa attorney, another rising star and a top Hernández ally, is the first secretary of the National Congress.  Both hold seats from the department of Francisco Morazán, which includes Tegucigalpa and surrounding areas, and which will elect 23 members of Congress, more than any other department.  The department of Cortés, which includes San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-most populous city and its industrial capital, will elect 20 members.  In each department, a voter will have as many votes as the number of seats — a voter in Tegucigalpa will be allowed 23 congressional votes, but a voter in the Bay Islands department will have just one vote. Continue reading LIBRE, Nasralla could leave no party with majority in Honduran Congress

Show us the long-form, Nicolás! (In which ‘birtherism’ comes to Venezuela.)

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So birtherism isn’t limited to the United States and the tea party movement’s nutty claim that US president Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and not in the US state of Hawaii. Venezuela Flag Icon

As it turns out, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is taking some heat over accusations that he was actually born in Colombia, not in Caracas, the capital of the country that he leads.

Maduro’s government is sinking under the weight of power outages, a return to expropriation (including a local toilet paper factory) and continued shortages of basic goods due to inefficient foreign currency exchange and a gap between the real and official value of the Venezuelan bolívar, which has led to ridiculous means to game the Venezuelan currency — one story earlier this week demonstrated how flights out of Venezuela are nearly 100% booked for months in advance as a way to arbitrage the difference in the official and actual rates.

Maduro, whose country is essentially locked out of conventional global debt markets, went to Beijing earlier this week (pictured above) to procure another $5 billion in financing (and $14 billion in development of Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco belt) from the Chinese government.  He picked another odd fight with the United States and came up with a truly nutty excuse for skipping the UN General Assembly meeting this week, which follows the possible implication of Venezuela’s government in the brazen attempt to transport 1.3 tones of cocaine from Caracas to Paris on an Air France flight earlier this month.

Rumors have swirled over the past months about Maduro’s birthplace and his nationality, but his chief rival in the April presidential election, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, is ratcheting up the pressure.  Capriles and Walter Márquez, an opposition member of Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), took up the claim yesterday that Maduro was born in Bogotá:

Márquez claimed that he has documents and testimonies attesting to Maduro’s dual nationality.  “Nicolás Maduro lived in the Carora neighborhood, in Cúcuta (Colombia). There are testimonies of people who spent time with him. We found the record of the birth certificate of Nicolás Maduro’s mother. She was born in Cúcuta. I contacted people who can testify that Maduro was born in Bogotá,” Márquez stressed.

Márquez added that so far the supporting documents attesting that Maduro’s father is a Venezuelan have not been found. “We have a copy of the marriage certificate of his (Maduro’s) parents, and the birth certificate of his older sister. Later on, I will disclose documental and testimonial evidence proving Maduro’s Colombian nationality,” he stressed.

Maduro’s doing a pretty good job of discrediting himself these days, so further discrediting Maduro (instead of chavismo more generally) won’t by itself do much good for the opposition — and it could backfire against them.  By pursuing a ‘birther’ strategy, the opposition is giving the Venezuelan military or rivals within the chavista elite, such as National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello, an opportunity to remove Maduro and start anew once Venezuela’s basketcase economy truly hits rock bottom.

Even if Márquez and Capriles somehow had smoking-gun proof that Maduro was somehow ineligible for the Venezuelan presidency, it’s also pretty clear that Maduro could claim that he renounced his Colombian citizenship or he could do so and still remain eligible for the presidency.  But even if he didn’t, does anyone think that a chavista-dominated court system would even entertain removing Maduro from office?  It’s hard to see just why the opposition is pursuing this strategy, because it telescopes to the Venezuelan electorate that Capriles and the opposition are less interested in making their lives better than scoring political points — or even plotting a strategy that could win power.

But under the constitutional process for nationality in Colombia and Venezuela, it’s easy to see how Maduro might wriggle out of any ‘birther’ scandal, even without leaning on Venezuela’s corroded state institutions.

Article 41 of Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian’ constitution — promulgated by late president Hugo Chávez in 1999 — states that only Venezuelans by birth who have no other nationality shall be permitted to hold the offices of President: Continue reading Show us the long-form, Nicolás! (In which ‘birtherism’ comes to Venezuela.)

Where Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition go from here

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Henrique Capriles’s last hopes of winning a recount in the April 2013 presidential election slipped away earlier this month when the chavista-controlled judicial system dismissed his complaints over the election.Venezuela Flag Icon

No one thought that, four months later, the opposition candidate had much of a chance of unseating Nicolás Maduro, no matter whether he actually won more votes.  But the decision two weeks ago of Venezuela’s top constitutional court not only dismissed Capriles’s complaint but fined Capriles around $1,700 for insulting the integrity of the court, and it suggested that Venezuelan prosecutors file a case against Capriles, who is also the governor of Miranda, for offending the institutions of the state.

No one thinks that the April 14 vote was incredibly fair — Maduro’s ruling chavista party, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) has co-mingled party and government for so long that it’s impossible to separate the two.  Chavismo remains both the dominant party and ruling ideology in Venezuela, even after Chávez’s death in March.  The Maduro campaign wielded a huge advantage in its access to state-controlled media and funds, and that followed a massive spending spree last year in the leadup to Chávez’s own reelection in October 2012.  But there’s credible evidence that the vote was not incredibly free either, with reports of voter intimidation and manipulation by chavistas and by police and army officials.

Officials in Venezuela’s electoral commission (the CNE) point to a June audit that ‘confirmed’ Maduro’s 1.49% margin of victory.  But the CNE won’t release the logs of voter signatures and fingerprints that correspond to the voting machines, which might otherwise reveal how fraudulent the voting actually was.  Neither Capriles nor the broad opposition group, the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, the Democratic Unity Roundtable), believe the result is legitimate.

Meanwhile, the chavistas are engaged in a slow-motion, cold civil war, and the Venezuelan economy is struggling with a combination of low growth, import dependency, depressed oil output, dysfunctional currency markets, and hyperinflation unseen since the 1980s.

So what happens next — and how does the opposition think about the future?  Continue reading Where Capriles and the Venezuelan opposition go from here