Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Venezuela: Local protests with a global flavor


Venezuela: Local protests with a global flavor

BOGOTA, Colombia -- The epicenter of the student protests in Venezuela
has been barricades in Caracas and other cities. But with a large and
growing community of exiles, the nation's troubles have rippled across
the globe like few other crises.

During last weekend's national march, more than 130 solidarity protests
flared up around the world — from massive gatherings in Manhattan to
modest demonstrations in Iceland and Egypt. In South Florida, there have
been dozens of rallies and marches since the Venezuelan protests began
in earnest on Feb. 12.

Jani Mendez, 38, has been helping organize nightly prayer vigils at
Bayside in Miami that are attracting hundreds of people, and has been
collecting first-aid kits for demonstrators back home.

She said there is a growing sense of desperation.

"It's sad to say, but I don't know how much difference we're making,"
she said. "We need to do something drastic. We do all this, but I don't
see any action."

With student-led protests in their second week, the body count continues
to rise. By some estimates, at least 13 people have been killed — some
of them deliberately by security forces, opposition groups say. And
while local news media coverage has been muted, the protests are taking
place in one of the most digitally rich environments in the hemisphere.
Shaky images of violence clog Twitter accounts that are seen as quickly
in Madrid as in Maracaibo.

Isadora Zubillaga, who handles international affairs for the opposition
Voluntad Popular political party, said the globalization of the protests
is directly linked with the deteriorating economic and security
situation at home. Venezuela saw the region's highest inflation and
lowest economic growth last year. And it's also among the most murderous
countries on the planet.

"The exodus has been massive," Zubillaga said. "And it's growing, but
nobody knows by how much."

The government has not provided migration figures since 1996, but a 2011
study found that more than 530,000 Venezuelans had left the country
since 2000. Some estimate that as many as 1 million might be living abroad.

But the global presence of Venezuelans isn't always translating into
global empathy for the protesters' cause. Despite calls from the United
States, Panama, Peru and Colombia for dialogue and peace, many of the
region's leaders have stayed mum.

"We're facing a complicit silence from governments but profound
solidarity from the people," said Lorent Saleh, a well-known student
leader in Venezuela who is currently living in Colombia because he faces
multiple arrest warrants back home.

He said there is clear evidence of human-rights abuses, including
torture and extrajudicial killings, but that the international community
has turned its back on the protesters.

For its part, the Venezuelan government touts the vocal backing of
allies like Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Russia.

The global spotlight comes as Maduro has called for a broad-based
"National Peace Conference" on Wednesday that would include civil
society, political and religious leaders. But it is unclear who will
show up.

One of the opposition's main leaders, Leopoldo López, has been in jail
since last week, and Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles has suggested
he will skip the meeting unless the administration agrees to basic
conditions such as the release of prisoners and disarming
government-backed gangs known as colectivos.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has also offered to meet with leaders
on both sides to ease tensions, according to The Associated Press. The
Carter Center mediated talks between Venezuela's government and
opposition after a 2002 coup against then-President Hugo Chávez.

But the gears of international diplomacy do seem to be moving. The
United Nations has become more vocal about the Venezuelan government's
heavy-handed approach, and on Tuesday Panamanian President Ricardo
Martinelli said he had asked the Organization of American States to call
a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Venezuela.

U.S. lawmakers are also weighing in. On Tuesday, Senate Foreign
Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he would favor punishing
Venezuelan officials who have had a hand in attacking peaceful protesters.

"We should be considering targeted sanctions against those in the Maduro
government who are using violence," he told CNN, "whether that's visa
revocations or targeted freezing of monetary accounts here in the United
States. Those are strong messages that are not interventionist but are
about human rights and democracy."

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, said the U.S. government should grant
more political asylum requests and reconsider deportation orders for
Venezuelans in light of the turmoil. But he stopped short of calling for
sanctions. Venezuela's biggest oil customer is the United States, but
Garcia said limiting oil imports from the South American country might
give more political ammunition to Maduro.

"We have to be clear that we don't end up playing the Goliath to Mr.
Maduro's search to be David," Garcia said at a news conference in Miami.

Venezuela accuses the U.S. of backing the protesters in hopes of
sparking a coup, and Maduro expelled three U.S. consular officials last
week on allegations that they were "conspiring" with student leaders.
But in an about-face Monday, he announced he would appoint an ambassador
to the United States, even though the two countries have not had them
since 2010.

Even so, the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that it was
ejecting three Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation, and suggested that
it was premature to talk about an ambassador-level exchange.

"We have indicated our readiness to develop a more constructive
relationship with Venezuela. We've said many months ago that could
include an exchange of ambassadors. But Venezuela also needs to show
seriousness for us to be able to move forward," State Department
spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "And recent actions, including expelling
three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult."

Miami Herald Staff Writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

No comments:

Post a Comment