Pence in Bogota to discuss ways to oust Venezuela’s Maduro
By BEN FOX
Monday, February 25
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The United States is planning new ways to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to give up power and other means to provide assistance to the people of the economically devastated South American nation after a weekend effort failed to deliver aid.
Vice President Mike Pence arrived in the Colombian capital and headed immediately into a meeting with Colombian President Ivan Duque. Pence will also meet with members of a regional coalition and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to discuss the next steps aimed at ousting Maduro.
A senior administration official said Pence is expected to announce “clear actions” as he speaks to members of the Lima Group, a coalition of more than a dozen nations organized to address the crisis in Venezuela.
Pence’s appearance before the Lima Group comes two days after a U.S.-backed effort to deliver humanitarian across the border from Colombia ended in violence, with forces loyal to Maduro firing tear gas and buckshot on activists accompanying the supplies and setting the material on fire. Two people were killed and at least 300 wounded.
For weeks, the U.S. and regional allies had been amassing emergency food and medical kits on Venezuela’s borders in anticipation of carrying out a “humanitarian avalanche” by land and sea to undermine Maduro’s rule.
Guaido, who has been recognized as interim president by the U.S. and 50 other governments who say Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate, has called on the international community to consider “all options” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis. A close ally, Julio Borges, the opposition ambassador to the Lima Group, was more explicit Sunday, urging the use of force against Maduro’s government. But U.S. officials have avoided talk of military action.
The administration official said the U.S. plans to bring “the full measure of its economic and diplomatic weight to bear on this issue.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in interviews on “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the Union,” did not rule out U.S. military force but said “there are more sanctions to be had.”
But any additional sanctions will increase the suffering of the Venezuelan people and may lead to more political violence, said Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who advocates a negotiated end to the political crisis.
“The ‘humanitarian aid’ this weekend was a public relations stunt, since the aid was just a tiny fraction of the food and medicine that they are depriving Venezuelans of with the sanctions,” Weisbrot said. “As the Trump administration admitted, it was an attempt to get the Venezuelan military to disobey Maduro. It was a farce, and it failed.”
Maduro opponents boost military rhetoric in Venezuela crisis
By JOSHUA GOODMAN and CHRISTINE ARMARIO
CUCUTA, Colombia (AP) — Opposition leader Juan Guaido has called on the international community to consider “all options” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis, a dramatic escalation in rhetoric that echoes comments from the Trump administration hinting at potential U.S. military involvement.
Guaido’s comments late Saturday came after a tumultuous day that saw President Nicolas Maduro’s forces fire tear gas and buckshot on activists trying to deliver humanitarian aid in violent clashes that left two people dead and some 300 injured.
For weeks, the U.S. and regional allies had been amassing emergency food and medical kits on Venezuela’s borders in anticipation of carrying out a “humanitarian avalanche” by land and sea to undermine Maduro’s rule.
With activists failing to penetrate government blockades and deliver the aid, Guaido announced late Saturday that he would escalate his appeal to the international community — beginning with a meeting Monday in Colombia’s capital with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of an emergency summit of leaders of the so-called Lima Group to discuss Venezuela’s crisis.
He said he would urge the international community to keep “all options open” in the fight to restore Venezuela’s democracy, using identical language to that of President Donald Trump, who in his public statements has repeatedly refused to rule out force and reportedly even secretly pressed aides as early as 2017 about the possibility of a military incursion.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also stepped up the belligerent rhetoric, saying on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that Maduro’s “days are numbered.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who visited the border last week and has Trump’s ear on policy toward Venezuela, tweeted out pictures of anti-American strongmen including Panama’s Manuel Noriega, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu at the height of their power and then brutal downfall — the not so subtle suggestion being that Maduro himself could suffer a similar fate.
A close Guaido ally, Julio Borges, the exiled leader of congress who is Guaido’s ambassador to the Lima Group, was even more explicit in urging a military option. “We are going to demand an escalation of diplomatic pressure … and the use of force against Nicolas Maduro’s dictatorship,” he said Sunday.
It’s a prospect that analysts warn risks fracturing a hard-won coalition of Latin American nations who’ve come together to pressure Maduro’s socialist government. Most Latin American governments, even conservative ones like those in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, are on the record opposing a military solution and would face huge dissent should they back any military action led by the U.S., whose interventions in the region during the Cold War remain an open wound.
“These governments know they would face a huge tide of internal opinion greatly offended by a U.S.-led invasion for historical and political reasons,” said Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America director for the Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank.
It also could split what has until been bipartisan support for the Trump administration’s policy toward Venezuela.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, over the weekend warned about a “potential trap being set by Trump.”
“Cheering humanitarian convoys sounds like the right thing to do, but what if it’s not about the aid? What if the real agenda is laying a pretext for war?” Murphy said on Twitter.
At the same time, though polls say Venezuelans overwhelmingly want Maduro to resign, almost an equal number reject the possibility of a foreign invasion to resolve the political impasse.
Resting at the foot of the Simon Bolivar bridge as work crews in Colombia began removing debris left by the unrest, Claudia Aguilar said she would support a military invasion but worries it would lead to more bloodshed.
The 29-year-old pregnant mother of three said she crossed illegally into Colombia on Sunday to buy a bag of rice and pasta for her family after Maduro ordered a partial closure of the border two days earlier.
“We’re with fear, dear God, of what will happen,” she said standing near the dirt trail she took to sneak across the border. “More blood, more deaths. The president of Venezuela does whatever he wants.”
In addition to weakening multilateral pressure against Maduro, analysts say the opposition saber rattling also risks undermining Guaido’s goal of peeling off support from the military, the country’s crucial powerbroker.
The 35-year-old Guaido has won the backing of more than 50 governments around the world since declaring himself interim president at a rally in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate because some popular opposition candidates were barred from running.
But he’s so far been unable to cause a major rift inside the military, despite repeated appeals and the offer of amnesty to those joining the opposition’s fight for power.
“How many of you national guardsmen have a sick mother? How many have kids in school without food,” he implored Saturday night, standing next to a warehouse where 600 tons of food and medicine have been stockpiled on the Colombian border. “You don’t owe any obedience to a sadist … who celebrates the denial of humanitarian aid the country needs.”
Maduro has deftly courted support from the military since becoming president in 2013, offering top commanders key posts in his cabinet, including the presidency of state-run oil giant PDVSA, the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s dollar earnings.
More than 100 members of the security forces, most of them lower-rank soldiers, deserted and took refuge inside Colombia during Saturday’s unrest, according to migration officials. But none of them was higher ranked than a National Guard major, and there’s been little suggestion any battalion or division commanders are willing to defect despite almost daily calls by Guaido and the U.S.
To be sure, there’s no indication the U.S. is planning a military invasion and Trump has made a habit of threatening friends and foes alike — China, North Korea and Canada among them — only to dial back the rhetoric down the road. Washington still has more diplomatic tools available, including extending oil sanctions to punish non-American entities that conduct business with Maduro’s government in much the way such sanctions strangled communist Cuba for decades.
Still, as early as 2017, Trump reportedly raised the possibility of a U.S. military incursion in Venezuela similar to the 1989 invasion that led to the ouster of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, both in an Oval Office meeting with then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other aides, as well as at a session with leaders of four Latin American allies on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, according to a senior administration official who has since left the White House.
In both cases Trump abandoned the war talk at the urging of his advisers and allies in the region. Prior to the current crisis, there was never any war planning by the military, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private conversations.
Still, momentum toward a confrontation seems to be building as hopes for a quick crumbling of Maduro’s government fade.
“It acts like a magnet,” said Briscoe of the possibility of a U.S.-led intervention. “As Plan A and B fail, it’s where everyone seems to be going. But the further you move in that direction, you weaken the multilateral approach and reduce the possibility that large parts of the military will turn against Maduro.”
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and AP writer Christine Armario reported in Cucuta, Colombia.
1 killed, 12 injured amid aid standoff in Venezuela
By CHRISTINE ARMARIO and LUIS ANDRES HENAO
Friday, February 22
CUCUTA, Colombia (AP) — Heightened tensions in Venezuela left one woman dead and a dozen injured near the border with Brazil on Friday, marking the first deadly clash related to the opposition’s plan to deliver humanitarian aid that President Nicolas Maduro has vowed not to accept.
Emilio Gonzalez, mayor of the Venezuela border town of Gran Sabana, identified the woman killed by a gunshot as Zoraida Rodriguez, a member of an indigenous community.
He said members of the Pemon ethnic group clashed with the Venezuela National Guard and army, who were moving tanks to the border with Brazil a day after Maduro ordered the crossing closed.
The violence came just hours before dueling concerts were expected to begin on the country’s western border with Colombia, where tons of donated food and medicine are stored.
British billionaire Richard Branson is sponsoring a Live Aid-style concert featuring dozens of musicians including Latin rock star Juanes on one side of a crossing that Colombian officials have renamed the “Unity Bridge,” while Maduro’s socialist government is promising a three-day festival deemed “Hands Off Venezuela” on the other.
Several thousand people — many wearing white and carrying Venezuelan flags — were already gathered in a large field, as several uniformed officers on horses and foot stood guard near the border.
As Venezuela’s political turmoil drags on, allies of Juan Guaido, who is being recognized by over 50 nations as the country’s rightful president, are hoping the massive concert and aid push mark a turning point from which a transitional government is consolidated. But Maduro has shown no signs of backing down, and analysts warn that whatever happens over the next two days may not yield a conclusive victory for either side.
“I think one of the government’s aims is to confuse the whole thing, possibly to create some kind of chaos that makes the opposition look bad,” Phil Gunson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group based in Caracas, said of Maduro’s rival concert. “It’s a propaganda war.”
There was no immediate information on the condition of those injured in the clash along the Brazil and Venezuelan border, but Gonzalez said they were taken for medical treatment after soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas.
The plan to bring in aid is one of the most ambitious — and potentially dangerous — that the opposition has attempted to undertake since Guaido declared himself interim president in January.
The standoff also prompted Branson to back the concert, who Colombian entrepreneur Bruno Ocampo said is so committed to getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela that he will personally stay until Saturday to help ensure that food and medical supplies make it across the border.
Similar to the original 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised funds to relieve the Ethiopian famine, Branson has set a goal to raise $100 million within 60 days.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into at the time,” Ocampo said Thursday. “But in less than 24 hours we are going to witness something historic.”
Friday’s concert won’t be the first time artists have used music to try and simmer tensions at the restive Colombia-Venezuela border. A concert known as Paz Sin Fronteras — Peace Without Borders — was held in 2008 after a diplomatic flare-up that drew Venezuelan troops to the Colombia border. That event was held on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, which 33,000 people now use to enter Colombia each day.
“Throughout history, art has had a big role in fostering change,” said Miguel Mendoza, a Venezuelan musician who will be performing Friday and won a Latin Grammy in 2010 as part of the pop duo Chino & Nacho. “Music, above all, has a magnificent power.”
Six hundred tons of aid, largely donated by the U.S., has been sitting in a storage facility at what is widely known as the Tienditas International Bridge for two weeks. Even as several million Venezuelans flee and those who remain struggle to find basic goods like food and antibiotics, Maduro denies that a crisis exists. He contends the aid is a ploy by the Trump administration to overthrow his government. The military has placed a large tanker and two containers in the middle of the bridge to block it.
“Trump should worry about the poor in his own country,” Maduro said this week.
Days after Branson launched his concert, Maduro’s government announced that not only would they hold a rival festival but that they would also deliver over 20,000 boxes of food for poor Colombians in Cucuta on Friday and Saturday.
The sharp rhetoric from both sides has put many in this border city of 700,000 on edge.
Paola Quintero, an activist for Venezuelan migrants, said that while the concert has had a positive, short-term impact on Cucuta’s economy, many are worried about what might happen Saturday when thousands try to move aid across the border.
“What awaits those who will be on the bridge, trying to get aid through?” she said.
Venezuelans like Rosa Mora, 40, said they were still debating whether to heed the opposition’s call for a mass mobilization at three bridges in the Cucuta area Saturday, fearful that they might be met with resistance by the military.
“I’m terrified of what’s going to happen,” she confided.
Still, when she thinks about her children and a sister with diabetes that has gone untreated for the last year, she leans toward participating.
“It won’t be for me,” she said. “But for our children.”
On Thursday afternoon, organizers on the Colombia side of the border bridge were doing sound checks while in Venezuela a dozen workers sat idly in white plastic chairs chatting and listening to Venezuelan folk music on small speakers.
Riding by the bridge on his bike, college student Frander Duenas said he hoped to sneak into Colombia to see Branson’s Venezuela Aid Live because he’s a fan of the musicians performing. The government’s festival didn’t entice him in the least.
“This concert is for old people,” he said. “No one is going to come here.”
Henao reported from Urena, Venezuela. Associated Press writer Scott Smith contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.
Cuba votes on updated constitution, accepts private property
Sunday, February 24
HAVANA (AP) — Cubans voted Sunday on a new constitution that expands recognition of private property and updates a Soviet Bloc-era charter for the socialist nation.
The new document, which had been tweaked after a series of public consultations, maintains control by the Communist Party, but adjusts the nation’s legal system to account for years of greater opening to small-scale private enterprise and closer ties to Cuban emigrants abroad.
Passage of the measure was assured, despite opposition by some evangelical Christian leaders upset that the document opens the possibility for eventual legalization of gay marriage.
Lines stretched from schools used as polling places on Sunday following days of heavy official promotion for a “Yes” vote and less prominent opposition sentiment expressed on social media sites recently opened to a broader range of Cubans.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel took to Twitter to encourage support, writing “CubaVotesYes” and saying the document “guatantees the rights of each and every citizen of the nation.”
The previous constitution was adopted in 1976 at a time when Cuba depended heavily on Soviet aid and trade and tightly restricted private enterprise. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union slammed Cuba’s economy in the early 1990s, the island has allowed hundreds of thousands of people to launch small private businesses, though their scale has been tightly restricted. The new constitution would allow some such businesses to legally hire a few workers.
Islandwide consultations led to numerous changes in the document, notably omitting an article that would have legalized gay marriage. But evangelicals were alarmed that it seems to open the way for eventual legalization by omitting the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
The document also would create the post of prime minister, promote cooperatives and recognized dual citizenship.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
El Salvador’s new president must tackle crime, unemployment and migration — but nation is hopeful
February 25, 2019
Author: Marcia D. Mundt, Doctoral Candidate in Public Policy, USIP Peace Scholar, and Fulbright-Hays Fellow, University of Massachusetts Boston
Disclosure statement: Marcia D. Mundt receives doctoral research funding as a 2018-2019 USIP Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar and a 2018-2020 Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Fellow.
Partners: University of Massachusetts provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Ever since its civil war ended in 1992, El Salvador has been governed by two parties: the conservative National Republican Alliance and its former wartime enemy, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a guerrilla insurgency turned political party.
That old antagonism ended when 37-year-old Nayib Bukele won the country’s presidential election on Feb. 3.
Representing the Grand Alliance for National Unity, or GANA, Bukele promised to move El Salvador beyond its dark and polarized past and forge a future of “new ideas.” GANA, founded in 2010, is a center-right party, but in parliament it often allies tactically with the leftist FMLN.
“The civil war … continued in the post-war era as we divided ourselves by the two parties. El Salvador has now turned the page,” said the president-elect in his acceptance speech.
Setting things right in El Salvador – with its high poverty, unmanageable street gangs and world-record-setting violent crime – will be a gargantuan task.
The two mainstream parties have each tried to solve these problems. The National Republican Alliance sought to stimulate the economy by privatizing electricity, telecommunications and health care and took a tough-on-crime approach to street violence. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front instituted new social programs and negotiated a successful but short-lived 2012 truce between MS-13 and other gangs.
Bukele is not bound by the political traditions born of war.
I have spoken to dozens of mayors, city council members and residents across El Salvador during my doctoral research on municipal policymaking in Central America. Many are hopeful about Bukele’s focus on the future – but unsure about what that future holds.
Stemming migration north
Migration out of the country is sure to be a focus of the new administration, which takes office on June 1.
Driven out by a lack of economic opportunity and extreme violence, nearly a fifth of Salvadorans have left the country. Six-and-a-half million people live in El Salvador. Another 1.4 million live abroad, largely in the U.S.
Thousands of Salvadorans have joined the Central American migrant caravans marching toward the U.S. border.
The result is “family disintegration,” says one mayor I interviewed in the Santa Ana region of El Salvador. “People are going to the United States, and then the youth are raised alone.”
According to El Salvador’s 2007 census, there are 85 men to every 100 women in the country. Analysts say this imbalance reflects “greater mortality, accentuated by violence, and … emigration abroad of the men.” Immigration specialist Jeffra Flaitz estimates that 8 percent of Salvadoran children have both parents living abroad.
In a moving campaign speech on Jan. 13, Bukele, a wealthy former San Salvador mayor, said mass migration is a problem of hope.
“Salvadorans say that they migrate because here there is no healthcare or there is no education, there is only violence and unemployment. And that’s true,” he said. “But what kind of healthcare does the caravan offer? Almost none. … [W]hat kind of education? None. … [W]hat kind of security does the caravan have? None.”
What “moves the Salvadoran,” Bukele said, is the “one percent chance that he will cross the border and find a country with security, jobs and healthcare.”
Bukele aims to address the root causes of migration by improving the quality of life in El Salvador.
He wants to boost employment by promoting tourism along El Salvador’s Pacific Coast, redesign school curriculum to focus on technology and offer scholarships to study abroad. He has also invited the United Nations to take a bigger role in rooting out government corruption, as it has done in neighboring Guatemala.
Bukele’s message of hope resonates with young Salvadorans.
“I don’t really have an interest in leaving El Salvador. I love this country,” said one millennial whose brother and father went to the United States in 2010. I spoke with her the day after the election, her finger still ink-stained from casting her ballot for Bukele.
“But I wish I could achieve more here,” she said.
Limits to power
It’s not clear how much of his ambitious agenda the president-elect can actually achieve.
His party, GANA, holds just 10 of 84 seats in El Salvador’s national assembly, and he has not yet explained how he will finance his proposed development projects.
El Salvador’s has a sizable national debt, and Bukele’s leadership as mayor of San Salvador from 2015 to 2018 reportedly left the capital US$270 million in debt.
Still, many Salvadorans are enthusiastic about Bukele’s campaign proposals.
The United States likely is too.
President Donald Trump has criticized Central American governments for not stopping the caravans, and threatened to end foreign aid if mass migration continues. In 2017, El Salvador received over $115 million in U.S. development assistance.
Since meeting with President-elect Bukele, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Jean Manes has pledged to “build on the enduring ties between our countries … to improve the exchange of information and collectively address security challenges and illegal migration.”
The local officials I’ve spoken with since the election view Bukele’s win with a mix of anxiety and optimism.
Partisan budgeting and pork-barrel projects are a longstanding tradition in Salvadoran politics. Corruption is too: Three of five post-war presidents have stood trial for diverting millions of government funds to their personal and political allies.
El Salvador has made efforts to direct development funds to municipalities based on need rather than party affiliation, and a 2015 reform has made city councils more representative. Still, local officials can generally predict how a presidential election will impact their town’s bottom line.
They don’t know what to expect of Bukele, who was expelled from the leftist FMLN before he joined GANA.
GANA has little power at the local level. Only 27 of 262 mayors nationwide are from GANA. In 12.5 percent of municipalities, Bukele’s party does not hold a single city council seat.
In my interviews, local government officials have expressed concern about funding for several popular social programs launched under the FMLN, including school and agricultural subsidies and social security payments recently expanded to cover individuals with disabilities.
Vice president-elect Félix Ulloa has indicated that the Bukele administration doesn’t believe in government handouts, saying that “you don’t fight poverty by giving people food.” However, Bukele has pledged to maintain existing social programs.
The path ahead is daunting and untrod, and the stakes are high for all Salvadorans. Yet another caravan recently began the trek northward from El Salvador, chasing the dream of a better life.