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Posts tagged ‘Defiant Land of Venezuela’

Ousted Caracas mayor reaches Spain after fleeing Venezuela

November 18, 2017

MADRID (AP) — The ousted mayor of Caracas pledged to spread his protest against Venezuela’s socialist government across the world as he arrived in Spain on Saturday, a day after escaping from house arrest and slipping past security forces into Colombia.

After embracing his wife and two daughters with a Venezuela flag draped over his shoulder, Antonio Ledezma said he was going to continue to fight Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exile. “I am going to dedicate myself to traveling the world, to spread the hope of all Venezuelans to escape this regime, this dictatorship,” Ledezma said. “Venezuela isn’t on the verge of an abyss, it has fallen into the abyss.”

Maduro, for his part, called Ledezma a “vampire flying around the world.” Ledezma, 62, was removed as mayor of Caracas and detained in 2015 on charges of plotting to oust Maduro. He was one of the leaders of anti-government in protests that rocked Venezuela in 2014 that also led to the jailing of other prominent opponents, including his former cellmate Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

Ledezma’s flight from Bogota landed early Saturday in Madrid where besides his family, he was greeted by the former president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, and the former Venezuelan ambassador, Fernando Gerbasi.

Ledezma said he “felt freedom” upon touching Spanish soil and hopes to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy before starting his global tour. He did not say what countries he plans to visit. “Venezuela is completely collapsing. We can’t wait any longer,” he said. “We don’t have any resources left, only our morale.”

Ledezma told The Associated Press on Friday that his decision to flee was driven by threats intended to force the opposition to resume negotiations with Maduro’s government. After slipping past intelligence police officers stationed 24 hours a day outside his residence, he passed through several police checkpoints in a long journey by car to Colombia. Colombian immigration authorities said Ledezma entered the country legally across the Simon Bolivar Bridge.

Ledezma, who thanked both Spanish and Colombian authorities for what he described as their warm welcomes, was elated after his escape. “I’ve lived out a James Bond movie,” Ledemza said. “I made this route of more than 24 hours, passing 29 control points, checkpoints, crossing paths, accepting all the risks, and in every moment I always thought about the value of freedom.”

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Venezuela officials: Ruling party wins most governorships

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council said candidates for the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won nearly all of the 23 governorships up for grabs in Sunday’s regional elections. Opposition leaders disputed the accuracy of the vote count.

Independent pollsters had projected the opposition would ride a wave of discontent over Venezuela’s economic calamity and win a majority of the state elections for the first time in nearly two decades of socialist rule.

Tibisay Lucena, the pro-government president of the electoral council, said socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered “irreversible” late Sunday. One race was still undecided.

Lucena said 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the elections, far higher than many people had anticipated. Even before the results were announced, opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said there was reason to question the results. He said the opposition’s count would be “very different” from the electoral council’s results.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” Blyde said. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

“There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “I think that’s going to deepen the polarization.”

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Throughout Sunday, President Nicolas Maduro and socialist party leaders said the election would be proof that Venezuela remains a democracy and not a dictatorship, as a rising number of foreign leaders have begun to call the embattled nation. Few checks and balances remain on Maduro’s rule after the constitutional assembly declared itself superior to all other branches of government and replaced the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor with a socialist ally of the president.

“They’ve said we are a dictatorship,” Maduro said in a televised address to the nation during the day. “No. We are a democratic people, rebellious, and with an egalitarian sensibility.” After results were announced, Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the count and would ask the constitutional assembly to order an audit of the vote in order to extinguish any cries of fraud.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely to lose. The vote was rescheduled for this December, but the constitutional assembly moved it up to October.

Days before the vote, the electoral council announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds, one of several unusual changes before the election. The opposition accused the council of trying to suppress turnout among its base — a significant portion of which has grown disillusioned about the possibility of change and lost faith in leaders they perceive as disorganized and divided.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Socialist candidates had urged Venezuelans to stick with the egalitarian principles installed by Chavez while also promising change. Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed the socialist candidate in Miranda, said he hoped his vote would set Venezuela on the right path.

“I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said.

Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuelan socialists claim victory as opposition cries foul

October 16, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Electoral Council proclaimed candidates with the socialist movement founded by the late President Hugo Chavez won a vast majority of the 23 governorships at stake in Sunday’s election, results the opposition immediately rejected and which threatened to further divide the nation.

An hour before results were announced, the opposition’s command centers had been filled with smiles and jubilation. Leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told a room filled with journalists and supporters that while he couldn’t share the preliminary results, they showed a victory of “historic dimensions” for the Venezuelan people.

But shortly before Tibisay Lucena, president of the government-stacked council, declared the results, opposition mayor Gerardo Blyde came out to warn that leaders believed the official count would be off.

“We have already alerted the international community and we are alerting the country,” he said. According to the CNE, socialist party candidates won 17 of the 22 races in which the outcomes were considered irreversible. One race was still too close to call a victor. In all, 61 percent of the nation’s 18 million voters participated in the election, far higher than many people had anticipated in a country where many have grown disenchanted and apathetic.

Lucena and others praised the vote as an example of Venezuela’s democracy but Blyde claimed fraud. “Neither the Venezuelan people nor the world buy that story,” he said of the results. The disputed result threatened to heighten an already tense standoff between the government and opposition.

The election comes during one of the most turbulent years in recent Venezuelan history. Four months of anti-government protests that began in April left at least 120 people dead, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. In August, a new pro-government constitutional assembly was installed, ruling with virtually unlimited powers after an election that was boycotted by the opposition and that electoral officials were accused of manipulating by more than 1 million votes.

Maduro said he had “absolute faith” in the CNE’s results but would ask the constitutional assembly to request an audit in order to extinguish any doubts that the results were inaccurate. “A triumphant victory for chavismo!” he proclaimed, referring to the name used for his predecessor’s movement.

The regional elections were originally scheduled to take place last December, but the electoral council postponed the vote after polls indicated socialist candidates were widely slated to lose. They were repeatedly delayed for a variety of reasons, including a requirement for political parties to “renew” their status with electoral authorities.

Then in May, during the height of opposition protests, Lucena announced the elections were being scheduled for December, after a vote for delegates to a constitutional assembly in July. Opposition leaders blankly refused to participate in the July vote, choosing instead to mount street protests in hopes of pressuring Maduro into canceling the vote. The vote continued as planned and CNE rectors proclaimed that more than 8 million Venezuelans participated in the election for delegates. International voting software company Smartmatic came out days later to assert that Venezuelans electoral officials had deliberately altered turnout results.

The new assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s constitution quickly removed the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor and declared itself superior to all other branches of government. Assembly delegates also decided to move up the delayed gubernatorial elections to October.

Projections by independent pollsters showed opposition candidates would win a majority, if not nearly all offices, while socialist party contenders were expected to claim a small handful of victories.

Still, opposition candidates vying for votes proved to have their work cut out with them. Many young supporters who had participated in the street protests are upset at leaders they perceived and disorganized and unable to unite behind a single strategy on how to loosen Maduro’s grip from power. Others were skeptical any change might happen at the ballot box, given the electoral council’s repeated favoring of the ruling party and accusations of fraud.

Meanwhile, pro-government candidates like Hector Rodriguez waged competitive campaigns, trading the polarizing red shirts identified with the socialist party for neutral colors. Rodriguez’s campaign focused largely on resolving the daily problems of Venezuelans and healing the divisions that have come to define the nation.

It was a message that resounded with voters like Sergio Camargo, a private security guard who backed Rodriguez. “I hope that after this vote, the people against the government of President Nicolas Maduro are more sensible and let him govern,” he said before getting on a bus to vote Sunday.

Electoral experts voiced repeated concern at several changes made by the CNE in the lead-up to the vote, though many believed that the vote count was likely to be accurate. Unlike the July vote, opposition parties would be on site to compare paper print-out tallies with the electronic ones in the final tally. The CNE was also slated to use Smartmatic software utilized in the 2015 legislative race, the last national electoral faceoff between the government and opposition.

The CNE did not allow the opposition to remove several candidates who lost in a September primary, despite an electoral law permitting political parties to substitute contenders up until 10 days before the vote. Less than three days before voting, the council also announced it was moving more than 200 voting centers, predominantly in opposition strongholds.

Council officials defended the relocations as a security measure in areas where violent protests took place in July. Opposition-arranged buses transported voters to the new sites Sunday — some of which were nearly an hour away. Other voters from middle-class neighborhoods were sent to vote in poor communities where crime is high.

Susana Unda, a homemaker who voted for Carlos Ocariz, the opposition’s candidate in populous Miranda state surrounding Venezuela’s capital, used her truck to transport voters whose polling sites were relocated.

“I was born in a democracy and I want to die in a democracy,” she said. Lucena said earlier Sunday the election was proceeding with the lowest number of reported irregularities that Venezuela had seen in an election, but the independent Venezuelan Electoral Observatory reported several incidents of voter intimidation.

Luis Lander, the group’s director, said those incidents included reports of pro-government supporters on motorcycles threatening voters gathered at polling sites. He said the number of voting centers that opened late was also higher than in previous elections.

Attention is now likely to shift to any impact such irregularities might have had. “There is a wide disparity between the poll numbers and the results which show that these elections were not free and fair and don’t reflect the will of the people,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The opposition called for an audit and urged Venezuelans to mobilize on the streets Monday in support. Government supporters called on detractors to respect the results and said the count is proof that the movement started by Chavez remains alive and well, despite Maduro’s low approval ratings.

“The cradle of the revolution doesn’t surrender,” said Argenis Chavez, the late president’s brother and declared winner of the race in Barinas, where Hugo Chavez spent his early years.

Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Venezuela’s Maduro meets Turkey’s Erdogan on European tour

October 06, 2017

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is meeting his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for talks on bilateral relations and international issues. Maduro’s visit on Friday comes amid stringent U.S. sanctions on the South American nation and a deepening political crisis in Venezuela, as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages.

The foreign ministers of both countries will also participate in the second meeting of their joint “partnership commissions” aimed at forging cooperation between the two countries, according to the Turkish president’s office.

Maduro’s visit follows a tour to Russia and to Belarus, where he discussed expanding military ties with the ex-Soviet nation. In February 2016, Erdogan visited Chile, Peru and Ecuador to boost trade ties between Turkey and South America.

Venezuela’s new assembly declares itself all-powerful

August 09, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The new constitutional assembly assumed even more power in Venezuela by declaring itself as the superior body to all other governmental institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

That decree came Tuesday just hours after the assembly delegates took control of a legislative chamber and put up pictures of the late President Hugo Chavez, who installed Venezuela’s socialist system.

Delcy Rodriguez, the head of the ruling socialist party and leader of the body, said the unanimously approved decree prohibits lawmakers in congress from taking any action that would interfere with laws passed by the newly installed constitutional assembly.

“We are not threatening anyone,” said Aristobulo Isturiz, the constitutional assembly’s first vice president. “We are looking for ways to coexist.” Leaders of congress, which previously voted not to recognize any of the new super-body’s decrees, said lawmakers would try to meet in the gold-domed legislative palace Wednesday, but there were questions whether security officers guarding the building would let them in.

The opposition to President Nicolas Maduro also faced another fight Wednesday before the government-stacked Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing on charges against a Caracas-area opposition mayor. The judges convicted another mayor Tuesday for failing to move against protesters during four months of political unrest.

In calling the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, Maduro said a new constitution would help resolve the nation’s political standoff, but opposition leaders view it is a power grab and the president’s allies have said they will go after his opponents. Before its decree declaring itself all-powerful, the assembly ousted Venezuela’s outspoken chief prosecutor, established a “truth commission” expected to target Maduro’s foes and pledged “support and solidarity” with the unpopular president.

The latest surge of protests began in early April in reaction to a quickly rescinded attempt by the government-supporting Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly of its powers. But the unrest ballooned into a widespread movement fed by anger over Venezuela’s triple-digest inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and high crime.

Opposition lawmakers said security forces led by Rodriguez broke into the congress building late Monday and seized control of an unused, ceremonial chamber almost identical to the one where lawmakers meet.

“This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning,” Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter, alluding to the opposition’s overwhelming victory in the 2015 congressional elections.

Before the assembly met Tuesday, the pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations.

Ramon Muchacho was the fourth opposition mayor ordered arrested by the high court the past two weeks. His whereabouts were not known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter. The constitutional assembly’s meeting Tuesday came amid mounting criticism from foreign governments that have refused to recognize the new body.

The foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru to discuss how to force Maduro to back down. The ministers issued a statement after the meeting condemning the body and reiterating previous calls for the parties in Venezuela to negotiate on ending the political crisis.

Meanwhile, leaders from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations, met in Caracas and declared the creation of the constitutional assembly a “sovereign act” aimed at helping Venezuela overcome its difficulties.

“We reiterate the call for a constructive and respectful dialogue,” the alliance said in a statement read after the meeting. Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. A U.N. human rights commissioner report issued Tuesday warned of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.

Only a few dozen demonstrators heeded the opposition’s call to set up traffic-snarling roadblocks in Caracas on Tuesday to show opposition to the new assembly, underlining the fear and resignation among that has weakened turnout for street protests that once drew hundreds of thousands. At least 124 people have been killed and hundreds injured or detained during the protests.

Powerful Venezuela assembly meets again as pressure mounts

August 08, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Foreign ministers from 14 nations are meeting in Peru on Tuesday in hopes of finding consensus on a regional response to Venezuela’s growing political crisis, while President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly is forging ahead on promises to punish the embattled leader’s foes.

The assembly was expected to gather at the stately legislative palace in Caracas for the first time since voting Saturday to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor, a move that drew condemnation from many of the same regional government that are sending representatives to the meeting in Peru’s capital.

Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new assembly, but the region has found that agreeing on any collective actions has proved tricky. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners, including a recent suspension from South America’s Mercosur.

Despite growing international criticism, Maduro has remained firm in pressing the constitutional assembly forward in executing his priorities. He called for a special meeting Tuesday in Caracas of the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.

The new constitutional assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands, voting Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.

“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, vowed to remain in their posts in their only government foothold — the country’s single-chamber congress, the National Assembly. John Magdaleno, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm POLITY, said that rather than having co-existing assemblies and chief prosecutors, it is more likely that opposition-controlled institutions will be rendered powerless as Maduro’s administration further consolidates Venezuela into an authoritarian state.

The opposition-dominated National Assembly “will be a body that in principal co-exists with the constitutional assembly but that will surely be displaced in practice,” Magdaleno said. National Assembly president Julio Borges told fellow lawmakers Monday that they should keep an active presence in the legislative palace despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Borges called the building, with its gold cupola, the “symbol of popular sovereignty.”

“We are a testament to the fight for democracy,” he said. “It should be known this assembly was true to its mandate.” In theory, both the National Assembly and the constitutional assembly could operate simultaneously, but the new super body created through a July 30 election has the authority to trump any other branch of government — and Venezuela’s leaders have promised to do just that.

National Assembly members voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super body’s decrees. “The intent is to pursue those who think differently,” lawmaker Delsa Solorzano said of the constitutional assembly’s plans.

Cabello said that the new assembly’s decisions have all aligned strictly with the 1999 constitution crafted by the late President Hugo Chavez and that the new assembly would be in power for “at least two years.”

“This is a completely legal process,” he said. The widening political gulf comes as opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether they will take part in regional elections scheduled for December. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week. Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on taking part in the contests for governors.

While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.

On Sunday, a band of 20 anti-government fighters attacked an army base in an apparent attempt to foment an uprising. The men managed to reach the barracks’ weapons supply. Ten escaped, but two were killed and the remaining eight were captured after battling with soldiers for three hours, Maduro said.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said special units were being activated Monday to assist in the search for the escapees, who remained at large more than 24 hours after the attack.

Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.

Maduro vows ‘maximum penalty’ for attack on Venezuela base

August 07, 2017

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro vowed that a band of anti-government fighters who attacked a Venezuelan army base will get the “maximum penalty” as his administration roots out his enemies.

Troops killed two of the 20 intruders who slipped into the Paramacay base in the central city of Valencia early Sunday, apparently intent on fomenting a military uprising, Maduro said in his weekly broadcast on state television.

One of the invaders was injured, seven captured and 10 got away, the embattled leader said. “We know where they are headed and all of our military and police force is deployed,” Maduro said. He said he would ask for “the maximum penalty for those who participated in this terrorist attack.”

The attack came as Venezuela’s controversial constitutional assembly is getting down to work, signaling in its initial decrees last week that delegates will target Maduro’s foes as he had warned. The new assembly, whose powers supersede all other branches of government, voted to remove the nation’s outspoken chief prosecutor Saturday. On Sunday, Maduro announced that a new “truth commission” created by the assembly had been installed to impose justice on those fueling the unrest that has wracked the country since early April.

The constitutional assembly is expected to meet again Tuesday, while lawmakers in the opposition-controlled National Assembly scheduled their own session for Monday, vowing to continue fulfilling their responsibilities no matter what the assembly might do. Leaders of opposition groups, which boycotted the July 30 assembly election, called for renewed protests on Monday, though turnout at demonstrations has been sparse in recent days.

Residents who live near the army base in Valencia attacked Sunday said they began hearing bursts of gunfire around 4:30 a.m. A video showing more than a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, some carrying rifles, began circulating widely on social media around that time. In the recording, a man who identified himself as Capt. Juan Caguaripano said the men were members of the military who oppose Maduro’s socialist government and called on military units to declare themselves in open rebellion.

“This is not a coup d’etat,” the man said. “This is a civic and military action to re-establish the constitutional order.” Maduro said 20 men entered the base and managed to reach the weapons depot undetected, but then an alarm sounded alerting troops to the incursion. He said 10 of the invaders fled, some carrying off arms, while those left behind exchanged gunfire with soldiers until about 8 a.m. before all were either killed or captured.

“Today we had to defeat terrorism with bullets,” Maduro said. Nearby residents who saw the dissident group’s video online gathered around the military base chanting “Freedom!” Other protests also emerged around Valencia into the afternoon. Troops dispersed protesters with tear gas and a man was fatally shot at a demonstration less than a mile from the base, said Haydee Franco, coordinating secretary of the opposition Progressive Advance party.

More than 120 people have been reported killed in four months of unrest that has been fueled by anger at the socialist government over food shortages, soaring inflation and high crime. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez characterized the attackers as a “paramilitary” expedition, saying the intruders were civilians dressed in uniforms. He did not identify any of the participants, but said they included a lieutenant who had abandoned his post. He said the man who recorded the video was a former officer dismissed three years ago after being charged with rebellion and betraying the homeland.

In 2014, Caguaripano released a 12-minute video denouncing Maduro during a previous wave of anti-government unrest. He later reportedly sought exile after a military tribunal ordered his arrest, appearing in an interview on CNN en Espanol to draw attention to what he said was discontent within military ranks.

Venezuela’s latest bout of political unrest erupted in protest to a Supreme Court decision in late March ordering the National Assembly dissolved. Although the order was quickly lifted, near-daily demonstrations snowballed into a general protest calling for a new presidential election.

Opposition leaders have urged the military, which historically has served as an arbiter of Venezuela’s political disputes, to break with Maduro over what his foes consider violations of the constitution. But the president is believed to still have the military’s support.

Like Sunday’s uprising, most manifestations of dissent among troops have been small and isolated so far. “It’s still very hard to know to what extent there are significant divisions within the military,” Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said recently.

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