Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro

Venezuelan opposition Deputy Juan Matheus (C) of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) party protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and in demand of early elections outside the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas on Thursday. (AFP / JUAN BARRETO)
Updated 09 February 2017
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Venezuela’s opposition tries to unite against Maduro

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.


Flood rescue stepped up as more torrential rain batters Kerala

Updated 6 min 6 sec ago
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Flood rescue stepped up as more torrential rain batters Kerala

  • Thousands of people are waiting to be rescued as relentless monsoon rains cause extensive flooding
  • The central government has dispatched military units to Kerala, but state officials are pleading for additional help

KOCHI, India: Rescuers in helicopters and boats fought through renewed torrential rain Saturday to reach stranded villages in India’s Kerala state as the toll from the worst monsoon floods in a century rose above 320 dead.
Dozens of military and coast guard helicopters took troops to high risk areas seeking people trapped on the roofs of submerged buildings. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the crisis as “devastating” after visiting Kerala.
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced late Friday that the monsoon death toll had dramatically risen to 324.
Media reports said at least another 14 bodies were found Saturday and state officials said they expected the number to rise as more landslides were reported and dam levels remained dangerously high. No new official toll was given however.
With power and communication lines down, thousands remained trapped in towns and villages cut off by the floods amid growing shortages of food and water.
Helicopters have been dropping emergency food and water supplies across Kerala, while special trains carrying drinking water and rice have been sent to the state.


With rain alerts hanging over much of the state, dozens of dam and reservoir gates across the state have had to be opened as the waters reached danger levels, inundating many villages downstream.
Particular fears have been raised for Chengannur, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, which has been cut off for four days.
Troops and military boats have been sent to the town and media reports said bodies had been found. The state government did not immediately give an updated toll early Saturday.
Saji Cherian, who represents Chengannur in the Kerala assembly, said he feared there were at least 50 dead in the town and broke down in tears as he pleaded for more help on Asianet TV late Friday.
“Please give us a helicopter. I am begging you. Please help me, people in my place will die. Please help us. There is no other solution, people have to be airlifted,” he said.
“We did what we can with fishing boats we procured using our political clout. But we can’t do more.”

With no end in sight to the rains, people all over the state of 33 million have made panic-stricken appeals on social media for help, saying they cannot make contact with rescue services.
Some say they are trapped inside temples and hospitals as well as submerged homes.
Authorities have warned that rains and strong winds are predicted for many parts of Kerala on Saturday and Sunday.
Prime Minister Modi arrived in Kerala on Friday night and held meetings with state leaders and went on a brief air inspection tour.
“I took stock of the situation arising in the wake of the devastating floods across the state,” Modi said in a Twitter statement.
An immediate grant of $75 million was offered by the government. Other state governments promised nearly $20 million.
Opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi demanded though that Modi declare the flood crisis a “national disaster.”
Dozens of military helicopters stepped up rescue operations across the state and in one a heavily pregnant woman Sajita Jabeel, 25, gave birth just after her rescue, an Indian Navy spokesman said.

“It was a very critical case, the lady was in labor, her water had broken,” the pilot, the pilot Commandeer Vijay Verma told News18 television.
“We took a doctor along, we winched her up, it took some time though because we had to winch down two people to help her get on to the strop.”
Another pilot, Captain P. Rajkumar, winched 26 people up from a rooftop after guiding the helicopter through trees and other houses.
A video of his Sea King pulling up the victims has been widely shared on social media. He ended up with 32 people in his Sea King helicopter.
Rajkumar was given the Shaurya Chakra medal for bravery this week after lifting a fisherman from the sea when cyclone Ockhi hit India last year.