How Venezuela’s lead­ers chipped away at democ­racy

Af­ter suc­ces­sive pres­i­dents can­celed elec­tions, closed news out­lets and ar­rested op­po­nents, protests may have be­come the last re­course

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Mery Mo­gol­lon and Chris Kraul Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents Mo­gol­lon and Kraul re­ported from Cara­cas and Bogota, Colom­bia, re­spec­tively.

Venezuela — Venezuela has been gripped by near-daily protests for the last 10 weeks, re­sult­ing in 69 deaths, 1,235 ar­rests and mil­lions of dol­lars in prop­erty dam­age.

The demon­stra­tions started in late March af­ter the Supreme Court, which is con­trolled by Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, ruled that it was tak­ing over the pow­ers of the leg­is­la­ture and in­ten­si­fied a week later when the gov­ern­ment dis­qual­i­fied a lead­ing mem­ber of the op­po­si­tion from run­ning for of­fice for the next 15 years.

But the protests have also been years in the mak­ing, as Maduro and his pre­de­ces­sor, the late Hugo Chavez, the founder of a so­cial­ist move­ment known as Chav­ismo, chipped away at democ­racy by can­cel­ing elec­tions, shut­ting down news out­lets and ar­rest­ing po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Food short­ages and ris­ing crime have only added to the anger.

“This is a new chap­ter in the con­flict be­tween Chav­ismo and the op­po­si­tion, a chap­ter an­i­mated by the cat­a­strophic gov­ern­ment of Maduro,” said Luis Sala­manca, a pro­fes­sor at Cen­tral Univer­sity of Venezuela in Cara­cas. “Cit­i­zens are strug­gling to make the gov­ern­ment re­spect their con­sti­tu­tional rights.”

Pub­lic protests may be the only re­course left to the op­po­si­tion, ex­perts said.

“The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of in­creas­ingly se­vere and bla­tant au­thor­i­tar­ian mea­sures can be seen in the wave of street protests in Cara­cas and else­where,” said Michael Shifter, pres­i­dent of the In­ter-Amer­i­can Di­a­logue think tank in Wash­ing­ton. “The op­po­si­tion has pur­sued other av­enues to press for change but has con­sis­tently hit a wall.”

Here are some ways that the gov­ern­ment has worked to limit the op­po­si­tion’s power:

Crack­ing down on the news me­dia

In 2007, Chavez re­fused to re­new the broad­cast­ing li­cense of RCTV, the most widely fol­lowed anti-gov­ern­ment sta­tion, forc­ing it to shut down and spark­ing na­tion­wide protests.

Since then, an es­ti­mated 300 in­de­pen­dent small-town ra­dio sta­tions have ei­ther been shut down or forced to change to gov­ern­ment­friendly for­mats, ac­cord­ing to Marcelino Bis­bal, a pro­fes­sor at An­dres Bello Catholic Univer­sity.

Globo­vi­sion, the last tele­vi­sion sta­tion to broad­cast anti-gov­ern­ment editorials, was forced to sell in 2013 af­ter own­ers com­plained of mount­ing gov­ern­ment fines and po­lit­i­cal ha­rass­ment. The new own­ers are busi­ness­men with ties to Maduro.

CNN, El Tiempo TV, NTN24 and other Span­ish­language ca­ble chan­nels that have crit­i­cized the gov­ern­ment have been banned from broad­cast­ing in Venezuela.

Maduro halted TV broad­casts of Na­tional Assem­bly ses­sions last year af­ter the op­po­si­tion won ma­jor­ity control.

In 2014, the largest daily news­pa­per, El Uni­ver­sal, was forced to sell to a gov­ern­ment-friendly owner group.

In­ter­fer­ence with Na­tional Assem­bly

In De­cem­ber 2015 elec­tions, op­po­si­tion can­di­dates won the two-thirds ma­jor­ity needed to control the Na­tional Assem­bly. That should have al­lowed the op­po­si­tion sweep­ing pow­ers to over­turn Maduro’s de­ci­sions and take control of the bud­get.

But be­fore the new congress was in­stalled, Maduro added 13 new jus­tices to the Supreme Court. With Maduro al­lies in control, the court then dis­qual­i­fied three newly elected assem­bly mem­bers from Ama­zonas state by claim­ing vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

That de­prived the op­po­si­tion of su­per-ma­jor­ity pow­ers in the leg­is­la­ture and pre­served Maduro’s po­lit­i­cal po­tency.

In July 2016, af­ter op­po­si­tion lead­ers claimed the high court had pre­sented no proof of vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, they in­stalled the three Ama­zonas assem­bly mem­bers any­way. The court re­sponded by declar­ing the congress to be in con­tempt and said that all laws passed from that point on were un­con­sti­tu­tional and thus null and void.

The Supreme Court gave all leg­isla­tive pow­ers to Maduro on March 29 and elim­i­nated par­lia­men­tary im­mu­nity, mak­ing all mem­bers sub­ject to pros­e­cu­tion. Do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion was so neg­a­tive that the court re­in­stated im­mu­nity two days later. Maduro was al­lowed to keep his new pow­ers.

Last month, he ex­tended a state of emer­gency for an eighth straight two-month pe­riod, main­tain­ing dis­cre­ber tionary pow­ers and the sus­pen­sion of cer­tain in­di­vid­ual con­sti­tu­tional rights.

Elec­toral post­pone­ments

Soon af­ter the op­po­si­tion-con­trolled assem­bly took its seats, the ma­jor­ity be­gan a cam­paign to ex­er­cise its con­sti­tu­tional right to hold a re­call elec­tion to re­move Maduro from power.

De­spite the col­lec­tion of 1.3 mil­lion sig­na­tures in the first phase of the cam­paign last year, the Maduro-con­trolled Na­tional Elec­toral Coun­cil de­layed the process so long that even if the op­po­si­tion had won the vote, Maduro’s vice pres­i­dent would have served out his term end­ing 2019. The op­po­si­tion then re­jected the ref­er­en­dum.

Elec­tions for state gover­nors and may­ors were sup­posed to have been held in De­cem­ber of last year. But the elec­toral coun­cil has post­poned them and not set a new date.

Disqualif ica­tion of can­di­dates

One by one, lead­ing op­po­si­tion can­di­dates have been dis­qual­i­fied from run­ning for of­fice, of­ten on flimsy pre­texts.

On April 7, the con­troller’s of­fice said that Hen­rique Capriles, the gov­er­nor of Mi­randa state who fin­ished a close sec­ond to Maduro in the 2013 pres­i­den­tial re­elec­tion to re­place Chavez, was in­el­i­gi­ble to run for any pub­lic of­fice un­til 2032 be­cause of al­leged mis­use of funds. Capriles re­jected the charges and de­scribed the ac­tion as a “coup” to elim­i­nate a com­peti­tor in the 2019 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Leopoldo Lopez, a charis­matic for­mer Cara­cas bor­ough mayor, was dis­qual­i­fied from run­ning for of­fice for six years start­ing in 2008 for al­leged mis­use of pub­lic funds. As the ban was run­ning out, he was jailed in Fe­bru­ary 2014 on in­cite­ment of vi­o­lence charges re­lated to na­tion­wide protests. He de­nied both charges.

For­mer assem­bly mem CARA­CAS, Maria Co­rina Machado was dis­qual­i­fied from elec­tions in 2015 on sus­pi­cion of plan­ning to vi­o­lently over­throw the gov­ern­ment, a charge she has de­nied. She also had been ex­pelled from congress for try­ing to speak at a meet­ing of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States in Panama.

Li­bo­rio Guarulla, the pop­u­lar op­po­si­tion gov­er­nor of Ama­zonas state and one­time Chavez fol­lower, was dis­qual­i­fied on May 7 from run­ning for any of­fice be­fore 2032. The elec­toral coun­cil said the rea­son was “ad­min­is­tra­tive neg­li­gence.” Guarulla, a mem­ber of an indige­nous com­mu­nity, dis­missed the charges and lev­eled a curse against au­thor­i­ties “for try­ing to do us evil.”

Ar­rests and im­pris­on­ment

Lopez, who is be­ing held at a mil­i­tary prison near Cara­cas, is not the only politi­cian ar­rested on charges that ap­pear sus­pect.

In 2015, au­thor­i­ties ar­rested An­to­nio Ledezma, who was then mayor of metropolitan Cara­cas, and charged him with at­tempt­ing to over­throw the gov­ern­ment, which his fam­ily has de­scribed as lu­di­crous.

Yon Goicoechea, a for­mer stu­dent leader who rose to promi­nence dur­ing 2007 demon­stra­tions against the clos­ing of RCTV, was ar­rested in Au­gust of last year and charged with pos­ses­sion of ex­plo­sives. His wife, who re­jected the charges, told re­porters that her hus­band was tor­tured while in con­fine­ment.

Daniel Ceballos, mayor of San Cris­to­bal, the cap­i­tal of Tachira state, has been jailed since 2014, when au­thor­i­ties ac­cused him of con­tempt of a court or­der to re­strain pro­test­ers dur­ing a wave of demon­stra­tions that turned vi­o­lent. He de­nied any re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Luis Robayo AFP/Getty Images

A STREET in east Cara­cas is cov­ered with the names of peo­ple killed in protests against Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment. In the last 10 weeks, there have been 69 deaths, 1,235 ar­rests and mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­age.

Fer­nando Llano Associated Press

A PRO­TESTER wears an “RCTV is Venezuela” head­band in a demon­stra­tion against the decade-old de­ci­sion by Hugo Chavez to force the sta­tion to shut down.

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