Luis Almagro, the head of the 34-country Organization of American States, did not mince words when I asked him in an interview last week whether Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro is responsible for the deaths of at least eight people in massive anti-government protests in recent days. You bet he is, Almagro said.
“He has incited violence. His rhetoric has exacerbated the conflict. In that sense, he is responsible for the actions of people who are out of control, the so-called colectivos, armed militias who were armed by the government,” Almagro said. “Therefore, he is responsible not only for the repression, but also for the consequences of the repression, such as people’s deaths.”
He added that Maduro has a “direct responsibility” for the deaths. “You cannot give weapons to civilian groups to carry out repressive actions. You cannot inflame passions with speeches full of hate, confrontation and conflict. So there is a line of responsibility. It's not only he who pulled the trigger, but he who delivered the weapons, and told [the killers] to crack down on street demonstrations.”
The interview with Almagro took place on Wednesday, as thousands of anti-government Venezuelans took to the streets to demand a return to democracy. Recently, the Maduro regime has virtually eliminated all powers of the opposition-controlled Congress, has refused to hold scheduled regional elections, and has banned the country's top opposition leaders from running for office for up to 15 years.
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In order to intimidate people into not participating in what the opposition had dubbed “the mother of all protests,” Maduro announced on national television that he would deliver rifles to up to 500,000 pro-government civilians.
Maduro said at a military ceremony that he had ordered his defense minister to “expand the National Bolivarian Militias to 500,000 militias,” and that he would guarantee “one rifle for each militia.”
Predictably, after the massive opposition showing two days later, Maduro offered a new “dialogue” with the opposition, promising among other things to hold regional elections that should have been carried out last year.
But fortunately, neither Venezuela's opposition leaders nor Almagro are likely to take the bait this time. Late last year, Maduro had accepted a mediation effort — brokered by the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations, known by its Spanish acronym UNASUR — which ended up being a travesty that only helped the regime win time and further crack down on the last remaining independent institutions.
Earlier this month, when I asked opposition leader and Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles about the possibility of a new round of negotiations with the Vatican/UNASUR mediation team led by former Spanish president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Capriles said, “We are not going to hit ourselves again with the same stone.”
Almagro, likewise, told me that any new mediation effort would have to replace Rodriguez Zapatero, and include a calendar for free presidential elections with international supervision. Already, 11 of Latin America's biggest countries — including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile — have signed a document saying that the Venezuelan regime has broken the rule of law, and demanding free elections.
It's too late in the game for regional elections, Almagro told me. Not only has the regime broken democratic rule, but Venezuela's economy has collapsed, Almagro said. Last week, the International Monetary Fund projected that Venezuela will have 720 percent inflation this year — the highest in the world — and 2,068 percent next year.
What's needed now is that “the international community keep its eyes on Venezuela,” and that Maduro be pressed to hold general elections, with credible international observers, and that he lift the bans on opposition leaders to participate, Almagro said. The right of opposition leaders to run for office is “a basic and minimal condition for democratic elections,” he said.
My opinion: Maduro's order to deliver 500,000 rifles to pro-government civilians, broadcast on national television, leaves little doubt that he is responsible for exacerbating political passions, and creating the climate that led to many deaths in the latest anti-government protests.
Latin American countries should step up diplomatic pressure and give Maduro an ultimatum to hold internationally-monitored elections or face serious sanctions. And Maduro should be held directly responsible for the recent deaths, before more young people die on the streets defending their democratic rights.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español