Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro

Opposition supporters protest in Caracas.

This story was published in Arab News on Feb. 10, 2017:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Special to Arab News

BRASILIA: A divided opposition in Venezuela is trying to put their differences aside to fight the political repression of President Nicolas Maduro, attempt to stop the country’s economy from sliding even more into depression, and to lower sky-high inflation.

President Maduro, an avid socialist, and protege of the late President Hugo Chavez, who is responsible for Venezuela’s voyage down the road to allegedly become a worker’s republic, has resorted to imprisoning political opponents and protesters. On the economic front, things have not gone well. The economy has been in a downward spiral for the past few years, ever since the international price of crude oil plunged in 2014. The country is dependent on imports for most of its food and goods, and with strict price controls enforced by the government, and forced nationalizations of whole sectors, this has led to widespread shortages of everything from soap, meat, sugar to toilet paper.

Despite opposition parties winning a majority of seats in Parliament in the December 2015 elections, 112 out of 167 seats, the Maduro government refuses to share power with them or even talk with them. For his new year address to the nation, Maduro did not deliver his speech in front of Parliament as is customary, but in front of the Supreme Court which is packed with his supporters.

This has caused regular street protests against the government, and Maduro has responded by having protesters arrested. Foro Penal, an NGO of lawyers who came together to defend protesters who get arrested, estimates that between 2013 and 2016, 429 protesters were arrested, and that 106 were still in jail at the end of December 2016. It estimates that there were 2,732 detentions in Venezuela for political reasons in 2016 alone, and that from January 2014 to December 2016 there were 6,831 political detentions.

“Maduro has created a sort of revolving door, a few leave and many more come in,” said Gonzalo Himiob, one of Foro Penal’s directors, to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo last month. “The economic and social crisis is very serious and will cause many more protests,” he added.

“The government must either file formal charges and try people in open court, or release them. Indefinite holding of individuals without trial makes a mockery of the judicial system,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College in California, in an interview with Arab News.

The opposition started a petition last year to have Maduro removed from office for incompetence, but despite getting the required signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, election officials stopped the petition in October 2016. A poll by Datanalisis at the time found that 90 percent of the population believed the country was going in the wrong direction, and 76 percent wanted Maduro to leave office.

In January 2017 Maduro appointed the hard line governor of Aragua, Tareck El Aissami, as his new vice president. By the end of the month he gave Aissami economic decree powers, making him one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. This caused the opposition to rethink their strategy of removing Maduro from president, since the vice president would take over in such a scenario.

Although opposition parties have formed a coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, they have been severely divided, able at times to rouse large street protests across the country against Maduro’s rule, and at other times unable to.

“The opposition parties in Venezuela are divided, and there are calls from Maria Corina Machado and others to disband the MUD and form a new organization. Some in the opposition want a recall; while others prefer to oust Maduro through street actions, and yet others would rather confront the government in statewide elections for governor later this year. They hope that regional elections would set the stage for presidential elections where they hope to defeat Maduro,” Salas said.

Both the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Vatican have been trying to negotiate an agreement between the Maduro government and the opposition, but to no avail so far. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has been especially critical of Maduro’s repression of opposition protests, and pointed out in an interview to the El Observador newspaper at the end of January that there was a need to act now in Venezuela because the mediation efforts of Unasur and Vatican had been a failure.

“People have been deprived of their constitutional right to recall President Maduro, political prisoners are still incarcerated, violence is rampant, and there is widespread hunger. The international community cannot wait any longer and must act now,” Almagro said.

But Salas believes that the OAS has been sidelined in Venezuela because of its criticism of Maduro’s rule.

“The secretary of the OAS, Almagro, has engaged in sharp personal attacks on the government, while turning a blind eye to issues in other countries such as Mexico. As a result the OAS has been largely sidelined in Venezuela. The key players have been Unasur and the Catholic Church. With Ernesto Samper’s resignation as secretary general of Unasur, it is still unclear what future role the body will play in Venezuela,” said Salas.

After not having much to show for after years of street protests, the opposition MUD coalition is now planning new ways of appealing to the Venezuelan electorate.

Jesus Torrealba, the secretary general of MUD, told the Americas Quarterly that they would be doing more outreach to poorer voters this year. He said they would rotate its leadership and include civil society in its decision making.

240,000 Brazilians protest across country for reforms

São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and 5 Brazilian cities have already announced bus fare cuts

Brazilian protesters on the roof of the National Congress building in Brasilia on June 17, 2013.

Brazilian protesters on the roof of the National Congress building in Brasilia on June 17, 2013.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Updated on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 21:10:

BRASILIA, Brazil – In a movement devoid of any overt political demands, and run mostly by young Brazilians fed up with being ignored for so long, Brazilians across the country spilled out into the streets on Monday night (June 17) to protest rising bus fares, huge federal government expenditures on football stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, and a lack of investment in healthcare and education.

An estimated 240,000 people took to the streets in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Maceió, Vitoria, Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Curitiba and Belém. The biggest turnouts were in Rio de Janeiro, where an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets, and in São Paulo where an estimated 60,000 people protested. These were the biggest street protests since ones in 1992 which called for the impeachment of the then president Fernando Collor de Mello.

Already these protests are showing results, with five Brazilian cities on Tuesday, June 18, announcing that they were reducing their bus fares by 10 centavos, or 5 US cents. With an eye on the 2014 elections, the governor of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos, who is planning to run for the presidency next year, denied that he had decided to reduce bus fares in Recife to appease the protesters.

Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup football tournament, with games being held at many of the gleaming new stadiums that were built with public money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. On Sunday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was booed by the spectators at the National Stadium in Brasilia when she was opening the tournament. That stadium cost a whooping US$600 million to build, delivered over budget and behind schedule just in time to host the opening game of the tournament.

The day before the tournament kicked off, homeless people protesting the high cost of hosting the World Cup next year, burned a line of tires on the main road next to the stadium, blocking traffic for several hours. On Monday, Globo TV revealed that one of the leaders of that protest was an assistant in the presidential office of strategic affairs in Brasilia.

The protest in Rio turned ugly on Monday night when a small group of protesters broke off from the larger group and marched to the local Legislative Assembly building and began throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police that were guarding the building. At one point in the night, around 70 policemen and 45 legislative workers were pinned inside the building for several hours, with 20 of them injured and not being medically treated as the emergency workers could not get inside the building. The head of the assembly estimated that the building suffered around R$2 million (US$1 million) in damage. Vandals also turned their rage against shops and banks in the downtown area of Rio, ransacking them and setting two cars on fire. The trapped policemen were finally rescued later in the night after Special Forces arrived to get them out safely.

In Brasilia, the federal capital, around 10,000 protesters marched to the National Congress building at around 6 pm, and around 3,000 of them ran up the ramp of the building at around 7:45 pm, occupying the rooftop of the iconic building with its cup and saucer coverings over the Senate and the House of Representatives, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Around 600 policemen guarded the Congress, showing amazing restraint, only using pepper spray a few times when some the protesters jumped into the reflecting pools in front of the building, and again when some of them tried to get inside the building itself.

This was in sharp contrast with the violent police reaction in São Paulo to protests there last week. Last Thursday, the police used copious amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets to push back protesters from the main Avenida Paulista. They also targeted journalists covering the protest, shooting rubber bullets directly at several of them, and hitting two of them in the eyes. Sergio Lima, a photographer for Futura Press, was the worst affected, with doctors saying he had less than a 5% chance of regaining vision in his eye that was hit. Giuliana Vallone, a reporter for the Folha de São Paulo, was also hit in her eye, but doctors said she would regain vision in the affected eye. In all 105 protesters were injured in protests over several days, with 12 policemen wounded.

Many blamed the governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, for the escalation of police violence after he publicly called for a tougher crackdown on the protesters after their first protest caused huge rush hour traffic jams when they blocked main streets in the central area of the city. After the many injuries suffered during the second protest, police in São Paulo were ordered to stop using rubber bullets, and instead resort to pepper spray.

Born from the Passe Livre (Free Pass) movement, which calls for free public transportation in all Brazilian cities, the protests on Monday were remarkable for lacking any political inclination. Indeed, several protesters who showed up wearing t-shirts of various political parties in protests in Rio and Brasilia were forcibly ejected from the marches. In a survey of protesters in Sao Paulo by Datafolha, 84% of those polled said they had no favorite political party.

Social media sites, especially Facebook, have been instrumental in mobilizing the protesters, who are mostly students in their 20s. A rise in São Paulo bus fares from R$3 (US$1.50) to R$3.20 (US$1.60) is what sparked the first demonstration. The mayor of São Paulo Paulo Haddad and Alckmin were dismissive of the demand to dial back the bus fare to R$3, openly scoffing at the idea of having free buses, the ultimate goal of the Passe Livre movement.

President Rousseff said on Tuesday that she supported peaceful demonstrations as a legitimate and democratic right of the people. But government officials have openly shown their frustration at not knowing whom to talk with in the Passe Livre movement in order to try and stop the marches which are disrupting the country and embarrassing Brazil’s government on the world stage. This has been the advantage of the protesters as the police do not have any clear leaders that they can arrest to try and disrupt the marches.

“This revolt did not happen because of a 20 centavo rise in bus fares,” wrote the Brazilian activist Raphael Tsvakko Garcia on his blog The Angry Brazilian. “It happened because of the rise in fares across the whole country. While the Workers Party is preaching that everything is honky dory here, the people on the streets have shown that this is not true. We are not happy with the World Cup, or with the state of our education and healthcare.”

These protests have gone completely against the narrative of the Brazilian government over the last couple of years that Brazil is whizzing towards its rightful place as a developed nation in the near future. Weaker economic growth this year, and a slight rise in inflation have brought to the surface the anxiety that many Brazilians feel that all is not well in the enchanted kingdom of the Workers Party television ads. The minimum salary is R$678 (US$312) a month, but that is barely enough for one person to survive on, let alone a family of four.

Protesters are fed up with public transportation that is expensive and of bad quality. According to a Folha de São Paulo survey which looked at how many minutes a person has to work to pay a bus fare, the average Brazilian worker has to work 13.89 minutes to pay his bus fare, while a worker in Argentina only has to work 1.44 minutes, and a New Yorker needs to work 6.33 minutes to pay his fare.

On Wednesday, June 19, São Paulo state governor  Alckmin and São Paulo city mayor Haddad announced at a joint press conference that all bus, metro and train fares were being reduced to R$3 from R$3.20, a key demand of the Passe Livre movement. One of the leaders of the movement, Caio Martins, immediately announced after the fare reduction announcement that the protest planned for Thursday, June 20, on the Avenida Paulista was going ahead as planned. “It’s going to be a big party to celebrate our victory, but will also be an act of solidarity for those who live in cities that still haven’t reduced their tariffs,” he told O Globo. “The fare reduction is an important decision because it shows that fares are political choices. If they can raise fares to R$3.20 and then reduce them again to R$3, why can’t they reduce fares to R$2 or even to zero?” he added.

Analysts predict that street protests may continue until the World Cup in June of next year and through to the Brazilian presidential elections due to be held in October 2013.



Arruda leaves party before being thrown out

Mounted military police attack a lone protester on
the ground in Brasilia on Wednesday.

THE embattled governor of the Federal District, Jose Roberto Arruda, announced his departure from the Democratas party yesterday at a press conference during which he read from a prepared statement. He did not take any questions from the press.

Accused of running a vast bribery scheme by the Federal Police, video surveillance tapes were broadcast on national television showing him and several other political allies accepting wads of cash from private companies that had been awarded lucrative contracts with the Federal District’s government.

Arruda’s move was a strategic one to preempt his former party from meeting today to vote to throw him out. He had asked the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to stop the Democratas from holding that meeting, but the court ruled yesterday morning that it could not stop what was essentially an internal party matter. In his prepared statement, the governor emphasized that he was withdrawing himself from the election next year, but that he intended to stay on and finish the 2,000 projects that his government has ongoing in the Federal District, home to Brazil’s capital of Brasilia.

Some observers have noted that Arruda will try to hang on for dear life, but that the amount of corruption evidence against him is vast and that ultimately he will be forced to resign from the governorship.

Anti-corruption activists have been holding anti-Arruda protests in Brasilia everyday this week, with the most violent one taking place on Wednesday when 600 anti-riot military police on horseback essentially attacked more than 1,500 peaceful demonstrators with their horses, billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. Horrifying pictures of policemen ganging up on lone demonstrators kneeling on the ground were printed in newspapers and shown on television. Col. José Belizário Silva Filho, who was in charge of the battalion unleashed against the demonstrators, hotly defended his men’s actions at a press conference on Thursday, even after video footage showed him rolling on the ground as he tussled with a protestor. “Did I hurt him deliberately?” he asked defensively. “Our actions were perfect!”

The head of the military police in the Federal District, Col. Luiz Henrique Fonseca, admitted that the troops under Silva Filho’s command had committed excesses in trying to contain the protesters and has opened an investigation into the incident. But he noted that initially he saw no reason to put Silva Filho on administrative leave. The Public Ministry of the Federal District took a less sanguine view of the incident, with Mauro Faria Lima, a public prosecutor, saying that it was opening its own investigation of the event by interviewing the injured protesters and the policemen involved.

Lima said the military police’s actions against the protesters were “bestial”. “A protester that had fallen down was surrounded by policemen mounted on horses. The policemen threw their horses against the protester. These were shocking scenes, unworthy of a civilized country,” the prosecutor said according to O Globo newspaper.

“We want Arruda to resign as governor now, in December,” one student protester told Globo television last night in an interview. “We’re not willing to wait until next year. We are going to keep protesting every day until he leaves.”

There are six impeachment requests currently being evaluated by the Legislative Council of the Federal District, which has 24 elected representatives. But analysts have noted that Arruda has enough allies on the council to have all impeachment requests turned down.

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