The Oppenheimer Report

Andres Oppenheimer: Venezuela’s Maduro off to a bad start


While media coverage of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s inauguration on Friday centered on the contested April 14 election results, a dramatic escalation of government human rights violations since the election has gone virtually unnoticed.

International human rights groups and Venezuelan opposition leaders say that in recent days the Maduro government has carried out a de facto takeover of Congress and is suppressing freedom of speech and assembly throughout the nation.

“The dispute over the election results is drawing a lot of domestic and international attention, but the world should know that what we’ve had here since the election amounts to a coup d’etat,” says Maria Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman.

And what Venezuela has had is a crackdown since opposition leader Henrique Capriles contested the official election results.

The pro-government National Electoral Council says the election was won by Maduro with 50.7 percent of the vote compared to 49 percent for Capriles. But the opposition says Capriles won.

In the aftermath of the election, at least 8 people have died and hundreds have been arrested in still-to-be-determined circumstances.

Maduro, the Cuban-backed political heir of late President Hugo Chávez, is blaming the opposition for the deaths. Opposition leaders say the government is making up or provoking violent acts to divert attention from a fraudulent election.

But, regardless of who is telling the truth, there’s little question that the rule of law has been curtailed since National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, the No. 2 in the post-Chávez government hierarchy, prohibited all opposition legislators from exercising their right to speak unless they accept Maduro’s electoral victory.

“In this National Assembly, as long as I’m president, no congressman who does not recognize comrade Nicolas Maduro will have the right to speak,’’ said Cabello on Tuesday.

And Cabello has acted on his promise, denying the microphone to opposition legislators who are not ready to recognize Maduro’s legitimacy until electoral authorities finalize a full recount of the vote, and look into more than 3,200 reported voting violations.

Machado says, “If this is not abolishing the parliament, what is it?”

Opposition Congressman William Davila was badly beaten in the head during a melee in the National Assembly, and received 14 stitches at a hospital. Government prosecutors have not opened an investigation into the case, opposition leaders say.

Meanwhile, Maduro publicly prohibited the opposition from holding a peaceful demonstration to demand a vote recount and a full probe into the reported electoral violations, saying that he would apply an “iron fist” to crack down on any protesters.

Capriles suspended a march scheduled for Wednesday, fearing bloodshed.

Just as ominously, Maduro demanded, after the elections, that the privately-owned Venevisión and Televen television networks fully align themselves with the Chavista government.

“Venevisión and Televen... all the media, should define for themselves whose side they are on, (whether) with the fatherland, with peace, with the people, or whether they will once again align themselves with fascism,” Maduro said. “Media, define which side you are on!”

Silencing Venevisión and Televen, which within the constraints of Venezuela’s authoritarian democracy try to give some space in their newscasts to opposition politicians, would turn Venezuela into a totalitarian state with no independent media.

Globovisión, the only anti-Chávez television network, has been sold to reported government cronies after suffering heavy government fines for its coverage. The independent RCTV television network was forced off the air by Chávez in 2007.

“The government of Venezuela should not limit citizens’ rights to freely express their views and assemble peacefully in response to the disputed presidential election,’’ the Human Rights Watch advocacy group says. “It should respect freedom of the press, and all violent incidents should be subject to prompt investigations.”

My opinion: Maduro is off to a very bad start. With the highest inflation rate in Latin America, crumbling roads and bridges, shortages of sugar, cooking oil and other essential foodstuffs, frequent electricity outages because of poor maintenance of existing utilities, record crime rates, and about half the population believing that he stole the elections, Maduro badly needs to pacify the country.

Much like Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, or Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos did after winning recent elections by much more comfortable margins, Maduro should invite leading government critics to join his cabinet, and build bridges with the opposition to get the economy back on its feet.

If Maduro has any brains, and democratic instincts, he will do that. But so far, he has shown he has neither — just a penchant for imposing his will through brute force and that may lead to his undoing.

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