Democratic transition in Venezuela seems possible, analysts say

Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela's National Assembly, greets supporters during a gathering in Caracas on January 19, 2019. (REUTERS/Manaure Quintero)
Updated 20 January 2019
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Democratic transition in Venezuela seems possible, analysts say

  • Venezuela's opposition politicians are getting united behind 35-year-old industrial engineer Juan Guaido
  • International pressure on Caracas has been growing since Maduro’s reelection last May
WASHINGTON: After an election victory slammed as fraudulent by the opposition and international community, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has begun a new term that will see him in office until 2025, his grip on power seemingly firmer than ever.
So why are analysts talking up a hope for political change?
Step in Juan Guaido, a 35-year-old industrial engineer who took charge of the opposition-dominated National Assembly on January 5, breathing new life into the body that had been rendered virtually impotent by Maduro’s constitutional maneuvers.
“It’s almost like a rebirth. The opposition has emerged more unified than ever before,” says Geoff Ramsey, vice president for Venezuela at WOLA, a research center on Latin America based in Washington.
“For the first time in many months... Maduro is on the defensive,” wrote Andres Oppenheimer, a noted journalist on Latin American affairs.
Weeks into his new job, Guaido has managed to get the assembly’s opposition majority to officially declare Maduro a usurper and denounce his re-election as a fraud, while promising an “amnesty” for all military and government officials that disavow the president.
That achievement eluded his predecessors, who have been exiled, imprisoned or disqualified.
Guaido upped the ante in a Washington Post column Tuesday, invoking articles of Venezuela’s constitution that call on its people to reject regimes that violate democratic values, adding: “I am fully able and willing to assume the office of the presidency on an interim basis to call for free and fair elections.”
Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, agreed Guaido wresting power from Maduro would be in accordance with the law.
“What is happening in Venezuela is not a coup d’etat,” he said. “The National Assembly and its current leader Guaido are totally legitimate, and have the law and Constitution on their side.”
But, he added, the limits of the opposition’s new-found strength are soon to be tested.
Facing a regime-loyalist-dominated Supreme Court that annuls all its decisions, the opposition has three main pathways, argues veteran diplomat Michael Matera, director of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The support of the military, the Venezuelan people and the international community will be essential to allow Guaido to assume (office) officially as president and to step into a role that now Maduro is trying illegitimately to hold to,” he said.
To that end, the National Assembly this week boldly extended a hand to the military: it promised to grant amnesty to all those who support a return to constitutional order.
Guaido will also require the support of moderate followers of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez to break for him, added Ramsey.
International pressure on Caracas has been growing since Maduro’s reelection last May, but it surged with the arrival in power of the far right in Brazil: new President Jair Bolsonaro agrees with his US counterpart Donald Trump that Maduro is a “dictator.”
Bolsonaro, whom Maduro called a modern-day Hitler, Thursday met at Planalto Palace with Miguel Angel Martin, president of the Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela in exile, appointed by the opposition majority Assembly. A top adviser of Organization of American States chief Luis Almagro also was present.
Meanwhile, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo met with Venezuelan opposition members and representatives of the United States and the Lima Group, a bloc of countries critical of Maduro. After the meeting, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Brazil’s willingness to support a Guaido “interim presidency.”
Though Maduro has a few allies in Latin America and around the world, most of the international community would welcome a democratic transition in Venezuela, according to Shifter.
“This process needs to be managed skillfully and be very clear-eyed about the obstacles that stand in the way,” he said.


Manafort ‘brazenly violated the law’ for years, says US special counsel Mueller

Updated 41 min 19 sec ago
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Manafort ‘brazenly violated the law’ for years, says US special counsel Mueller

  • Prosecutors said that “upon release from jail, Manafort presents a grave risk of recidivism”
  • Manafort is already facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison in a separate tax and bank fraud case
WASHINGTON: Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort committed crimes that cut to “the heart of the criminal justice system” and over the years deceived everyone from bookkeepers and banks to federal prosecutors and his own lawyers, according to a sentencing memo filed Saturday by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.
In the memo, submitted in one of two criminal cases Manafort faces, prosecutors do not yet take a position on how much prison time he should serve or whether to stack the punishment on top of a separate sentence he will soon receive in a Virginia prosecution. But they do depict Manafort as a longtime and unrepentant criminal who committed “bold” crimes, including under the spotlight of his role as campaign chairman and later while on bail, and who does not deserve any leniency.
“For over a decade, Manafort repeatedly and brazenly violated the law,” prosecutors wrote. “His crimes continued up through the time he was first indicted in October 2017 and remarkably went unabated even after indictment.”
Citing Manafort’s lies to the FBI, several government agencies and his own lawyer, prosecutors said that “upon release from jail, Manafort presents a grave risk of recidivism.”
The 25-page memo, filed in federal court in Washington, is likely the last major filing by prosecutors as Manafort heads into his sentencing hearings next month and as Mueller’s investigation approaches a conclusion. Manafort, who has been jailed for months and turns 70 in April, will have a chance to file his own sentencing recommendation next week. He and his longtime business partner, Rick Gates, were the first two people indicted in the special counsel’s investigation. Overall, Mueller has produced charges against 34 individuals, including six former Trump aides, and three companies.
Manafort’s case has played out in stark contrast to those of other defendants in the Russia investigation, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who prosecutors praised for his cooperation and left open the possibility of no jail time.
Manafort pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy arising from his Ukrainian political consulting work and his efforts to tamper with witnesses. As part of that plea, he agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team, a move that could have helped him avoid a longer prison sentence. But within weeks, prosecutors say he repeatedly lied to investigators, including about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business associate who the US says has ties to Russian intelligence. That deception voided the plea deal.
The sentencing memo comes as Manafort, who led Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for several critical months, is already facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison in a separate tax and bank fraud case in Virginia. Mueller’s team endorsed a sentence of between 19.5 and 24.5 years in prison in that case.
Prosecutors note that the federal guidelines recommend a sentence of more than 17 years, but Manafort pleaded guilty last year to two felony counts that carry maximum sentences of five years each.
Prosecutors originally filed a sealed sentencing memo on Friday, but the document was made public on Saturday with certain information still redacted, or blacked out.
In recent weeks, court papers have revealed that Manafort shared polling data related to the Trump campaign with Kilimnik. A Mueller prosecutor also said earlier this month that an August 2016 meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik goes to the “heart” of the Russia probe. The meeting involved a discussion of a Ukrainian peace plan, but prosecutors haven’t said exactly what has captured their attention and whether it factors into the Kremlin’s attempts to help Trump in the 2016 election.
Like other Americans close to the president charged in the Mueller probe, Manafort hasn’t been accused of involvement in Russian election interference.