On February 20, a day after Venezuelan security agents smashed into the office of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and arrested him on conspiracy charges, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff referred to the mayor’s detention as a Venezuelan “internal matter.” Later, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released two bland statements in line with Rousseff’s comment, expressing concern and reaffirming Brazil’s commitment to act as a mediator.
This reaction was not dissimilar to the response of other important regional players, like Chile and México. Only Colombia’s tone was a bit harsher, perhaps because the country was mentioned in the accusations against Ledezma. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denied his country’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy and made a plea that the rights of opposition members be respected.
But Ledezma’s rights had been violated even during his arrest. A group of armed officers stormed the mayor’s office and forcefully dragged him away without an arrest warrant. Ledezma was indicted the next day on charges of conspiracy to help plot an American-backed coup. Five days after the arrest, a police officer shot and killed a teenage boy during an anti-government protest in the city of San Cristóbal, the epicenter of nation-wide demonstrations last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. The boy’s death spurred sporadic protests in different cities, ratcheting up tension in a country that, alongside political turmoil, is experiencing a severe economic crisis.
Allegations of Espionage Threaten Peru-Chile Relations: Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz announced on Sunday that Chilean Ambassador Roberto Ibarra would not return to his post in Peru in light of the country’s espionage complaints against Chile. On Friday, Peruvian Ambassador Francisco Rojas Samanez was recalled to Lima after Peruvian prosecutors claimed that several Peruvian naval officers sold confidential information about their navy’s surveillance of fishing boats to Chilean navy officials. Two of the naval officers implicated in the leaks have been placed in detention. Muñoz has stated that Ibarra is “in consultations” to craft a response to the allegations “with calmness and without harsh remarks.” Peruvian president Ollanta Humala called on Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to issue assurance “that such espionage activities will never be repeated.”
Panama to Mediate Conflict Regarding Hydroelectric Dam: The Panamanian government formally announced negotiations on Saturday to address growing conflict over the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant on the Tabasará River, which is now 95 percent complete. A neighboring Indigenous community, the Ngäbe Buglé, is demanding cancellation of the $225 million project due to environmental concerns, and local protests stalled construction work on February 9. Negotiations over the dam are to be facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City, and led by a high-level committee headed by the vice president and foreign minister of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela expressed faith in the negotiations, saying, “we will do whatever we have to do in the negotiations to seek a solution. I have a lot of confidence and we will take the time that is required.” However, the president of the Regional Congress of the Traditional Ngäbe Buglé, Toribio García, said the community’s opposition to the dam is “not negotiable” and announced that they would not participate in the negotiations.
Guatemala to Eliminate Customs Duties with Honduras: Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina set a deadline of mid-December 2015 to eliminate customs duties between Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to improve both countries’ trade. Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Raúl Morales also confirmed that three shared land border crossings between the two countries could also be phased out, and expressed hope that El Salvador and Nicaragua would eventually join the partnership. The plan is part of a coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants fleeing to the U.S. border in the summer of 2014. In September 2014, the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras formed the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a joint development plan that included eliminating customs to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The Northern Triangle’s combined population is 29 million and has the highest poverty levels in Latin America. The plan has received support from the Obama administration.
Venezuela’s electoral body, the Consejo Nacional Electoral, affirmed that the next presidential election will be held on Sunday, October 7, 2012. This announcement came as a surprise to many who had expected the election date to remain in the traditional month of December.
President Hugo Chávez, despite admitting in June that he is battling cancer and having undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy in recent months, will represent his party—Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV)—next year. Last night, Chávez tweeted: “7 October 2012: your destiny is written! We will write another revolutionary victory on your page! We will live and we will conquer!” Some have criticized Chávez for moving up the date since it will reduce the campaign period for his challengers.
On the opposing end, María Corina Machado, a representative for the state of Miranda in the unicameral National Assembly, met with voters today in the state of Zulia to solicit support for her already-declared bid. Machado belongs to the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party, which falls within the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Coalition for Democratic Unity, or MUD) opposition bloc. In Zulia, Machado said, “We have to react now with the closer date—389 days remain—to mobilize ourselves and act. Together we work for democracy, security for our family and prosperity for all Venezuelans. We have the will.”
Other declared MUD candidates include: Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda; Pablo Pérez, governor of Zulia; César Pérez, governor of the state of Táchira; and Antonio Ledezma, mayor of the Caracas metropolitan district. MUD will hold its primary on February 12, 2012, to select a challenger to Chávez.
Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, spoke with the Organization of American States (OAS) yesterday to discuss how the OAS can help to end a hunger strike that has spread to include over a dozen city employees since it began last Friday. The mayor—a member of the opposition to President Hugo Chávez—is protesting Chávez’ violation of democratic rights and has asked OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to create a high-level commission that would visit the country and analyze the “gravity of the situation.”
Ledezma’s chief complaint is that President Chávez has stripped away his executive responsibilities by naming Jacqueline Faría as the chief of government of Caracas, a post that has complete veto power over the mayor’s actions. Chávez also has limited Ledezma’s access to state funds, leaving over 22,000 city employees without a paycheck for the past eight months. The President has taken similar actions against opposition governors, taking away their power to administer schools and hospitals.
The Venezuelan government denies Ledezma’s accusations and claims that his hunger strike is a stunt to attract media attention.