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VENEZUELA
Deterioration of public institutions
Valentina Oropeza
3/7/2014
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Repression of protests demonstrates need for mechanisms to protect human rights.

On Feb. 22, opposition members rallied along several kilometers of Caracas’ central Francisco de Miranda Avenue. Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles brought together his supporters to call for the dissolution of paramilitary forces in Venezuela known as “colectivos” — civilian groups backed by the government that control security in the neighborhoods where they are based and who are known as the most extreme defenders of the policies of deceased president Hugo Chávez, who held power from 1999 to 2013.

The protestors did as requested and wore white that day, however their reasons for being there varied from poster to poster: “Peace and justice for the people. No more blood”; “I don’t want a Cuba-style dictatorship”; “I studied tourism and I show people around the markets”; “They rob us, they kill us, and the government does nothing.”

The opposition is struggling to show its internal unity isn’t jeopardized by the differences between Capriles — current governor of the state of Miranda — and Leopoldo López, former mayor of the Caracas municipality of Chacao (2000-2008). The former doesn’t believe in protest without an imminent electoral goal, while the latter has supported the street actions. Since Feb. 18, López has been detained in the military barracks of Ramo Verde, 30 km south of Caracas, accused of inciting violence.

In the meantime, regular citizens who have joined the protests organized by the university student movement since Feb. 12 ask where this new violence is headed, if President Nicolás Maduro is determined to ignore the discontent generated when food staple shortages in January exceeded 26 percent, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela, and there was an accumulated inflation of 56.2 percent last year.

Chávez began regulating food staple prices in February 2003 as a way — along with controlling the exchange rate — to ensure supplies after the national strike called by employees of the oil industry stopped production activities in the country for two months that year.

The expropriations of agricultural companies (that eventually stalled under administration by the State) and the difficulties faced by Venezuelan producers to compete with imported products have eroded the national production system. On Feb. 24 this year, the government announced it would ration the sale of food staples at regulated prices—oil, rice, sugar, coffee, poultry, beef, pork, fish, bread, pasta, corn, dairy products, juices, jams, mineral water, and personal hygiene and cleaning products— in the state-run shops of the Venezuelan Producer and Distributor of Food (PDVAL). Each person can buy these staples once a week; their ID information is recorded in a centralized system to prevent them from buying the same products at other PDVAL locations.

Moreover, business owners claim the Law of Fair Costs and Prices, approved in January, threatens the profitability of the private sector by imposing a cap of 30 percent on profits and punishes business owners with penalties of up to 10 years in prison if they offer goods or services at prices above those established by the authorities.

Exchange rate system reform enacted this year by Maduro led to a double devaluation of the bolívar, the national currency, which erodes citizens’ purchasing power because most of the goods consumed in the country are imported and costs depend on the exchange rate between the bolívar and the dollar. On Jan. 23, the government raised the rate from 6.30 to 11.30 bolívares to the dollar to allocate foreign exchange through an auction model called the Complementary Currency Management System (SICAD I). On Feb. 11, the government authorized the sale of dollars through bonds or cash to public and private companies through SICAD II, a measure intended to reduce the price of parallel market dollars (about 80 bolívares to the dollar).

Problems for the ruling party
Currently, the government faces internal contradictions as well. Late last year, Maduro acknowledged foreign exchange shortages stemmed from the issuance of dollars to “briefcase companies” to supposedly import goods for commercial purposes — but which never reached the national economy. The authorities have acknowledged that in 2012, US$25 billion were embezzled in this way alone, enough to pay off the debt with the private sector.

The president also told the country there was a need to increase the price of gasoline by 2.683 percent to prevent the state oil company Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA) from continuing to record losses from the fuel subsidy, and even reached consensus from opposition governors and mayors to implement the measure.

Today, however, Maduro attributes the currency crisis to an “economic war” perpetrated by the “imperialist bourgeoisie,” dismisses the increase of gasoline prices, and appeals to devaluation to rebuild state finances, a strategy that further worsens the surge in the price of goods and services. After nearly a year in office, the tension between the leader and Diosdado Cabello, president of the legislature, is still present.

Maduro called a “National Peace Conference” on Feb. 26, a meeting attended by delegates from the most representative sectors of the country but not opposition leaders, who claimed that the dialogue is intended to blur the responsibility of the government on abuses committed by police and military in the suppression of student protests.

Also, the president asked the National Assembly to establish a “Truth Commission” to investigate the violence in the demonstrations. The Catholic Church asked in a statement that the commission be unbiased, and flatly rejected “the use of force exerted by the security forces of the State.”

Fifteen people were reported killed since protests began, according to the Prosecutor General´s Office; seven were shot in the head, organizations defending human rights like the Venezuelan Penal Forum and the Centre for Human Rights Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) allege. Also, of the 649 arrests across the country, according to unofficial versions, the opposition and the Venezuelan Penal Forum have recorded 40 cases of torture by Venezuelan military and police forces.

Genuine dialogue
Nizar El Fakih, a lawyer with UCAB’s Human Rights Center in Caracas, claims the violation of due process is systematic because detainees endure cruel punishment for days on end, do not have means to communicate, and are denied access to those attorneys, as well as contact with their families. “The Prosecutor and the Public Defender are responsible for their abuses by omission. Both could initiate official investigations to identify and prosecute those responsible,” he said.

According to media reports, the majority of those arrested have already been released and the only people who remain detained are those accused of vandalism, like burning storefronts and vehicles, and those who had firearms on their person when arrested, including police and intelligence service officers for excessive use of force.

For the Forum for Life, which brings together organizations defending human rights in Venezuela, the repression of students “shows the deterioration of public institutions in effectively arbitrating the diversity of political positions in the country,” and called for “the national and international community to react to question human rights violations, to demand steps be take toward an independent investigation, to ask for the end to repression and promote a genuine dialogue.”

Until this happens, the opposition will seek justice from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the International Criminal Court. So far the Commission issued a statement on Feb. 21 wherein it states that “has continued to monitor and gather information on the events that have transpired in Venezuela” and reiterated that “it is profoundly disturbed by various complaints alleging violations of the demonstrators’ rights to peaceful protest and their rights to life and humane treatment, personal liberty, freedom of association and freedom of expression.”

The organization also called on government authorities “to promote a process of dialogue to find a solution in the context of a democratic society and with a full respect for human rights.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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