Venezuelan opposition leaders rounded up as Maduro’s assault on democracy continues

Early Tuesday morning, prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma were forcibly removed from their homes by the notorious Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia (Sebin). López and Ledezma had been placed under house arrest on charges related to their vocal opposition of President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

In response to the outrage surrounding the detainment of both leaders, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice stated that López and Ledesma had been planning to escape, and therefore had to be returned to prison. Despite being unable to prove the accusations, the pro-Maduro Supreme Court upheld the decision.

What is happening in Venezuela?

The detainment of López and Ledezma comes a mere 24 hours after Maduro’s highly controversial Constituent Assembly election. Sunday’s vote created a 545 member assembly charged with rewriting Venezuela’s Constitution. The election was largely boycotted by those who saw it as a way for Maduro to strengthen his authoritarian grip on the country by creating a body that would give him greater decision-making power.

Once formed, the Constituent Assembly will decide the fate of state institutions, including the opposition-controlled national legislature. The Assembly will have the power to effectively wipe out Maduro’s political opposition, giving the government total control over the country.

Using the Assembly to silence the opposition

Leading up to the election, Maduro and his allies spoke extensively on how they would use the Assembly’s sweeping powers to silence and punish those critical of the government by removing legislators’ constitutional immunity and arresting key opposition leaders.

Neighbouring countries and former allies of Venezuela – including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Spain – rejected the legitimacy of Maduro’s election as well as the resulting ‘victory’. Venezuelan opposition leaders, including López and Ledezma, denounced the election as undemocratic and called on supporters to boycott Sunday’s vote.

An election Venezuelans didn’t ask for

One of the most problematic elements of the Constituent Assembly election was the fact that Venezuelans were never given the option of rejecting a rewrite of the Constitution. The opposition held a symbolic vote asking citizens if they wanted the 1999 Constitution to be rewritten at all. The response was a resounding ‘no’, with 98 percent of votes cast in support of upholding the current Constitution. Opinion polls leading up to the election reflected a similar sentiment, with a significant majority of Venezuelans seeing no need for a constitutional rewrite.

How is this election important?

The Constituent election represents the Maduro government’s latest attack on democracy and democratic values.

In March 2016, the Supreme Court (widely considered an arm of Maduro’s government by the opposition) issued a sentence allowing this body to operate on behalf of the opposition-held legislature. This gave the Supreme Court, an unelected body, power to overturn decisions made in the national legislature, and make decisions in place of the legislative body. Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections, called the move an outright coup d’état.

The decision sparked a violent wave of protests that has claimed many lives, and continues to rage on. Since April 2017 alone, an estimated 113 people have been killed, and over 2,000 wounded in anti-government protests. Sunday’s election marked the bloodiest day in the past three months. 14 people were killed during protests (according to opposition sources), Constituent Assembly candidate José Félix Pineda was fatally shot in his home early Sunday morning, and at least seven police officers died in an explosion in a Caracas neighbourhood.

Why we need to keep watching and talking about Venezuela

With the newly-formed Constituent Assembly, Maduro’s government not only continues to undermine democracy in Venezuela, but further divides a country that has been crushed by economic crisis, shortages of food, medicine, and basic supplies, as well as dangerous hyperinflation.

A number of regional and international powers have refused to recognise Maduro’s Venezuela as a democratic state. On the one hand, this puts immense pressure on Maduro and weakens Venezuela on the world stage. This will prove to be a huge problem for the Venezuelan government as they spend the coming months desperately trying to confront the crippling shortages in the country. With this type of international pressure, it will be next to impossible for Venezuela to obtain international bank loans and cultivate diplomatic ties to procure resources.

On the other hand, the pressure exerted over the Maduro’s government falls hardest on the people of Venezuela. With continued international isolation, Venezuelans will continue to suffer. Inflation is expected to reach a staggering 720 percent in 2017. Food prices have skyrocketed. The percentage of households in poverty has shot up to 82 percent*, and is on the rise.

The international community is right to criticise the absence of democratic values in Maduro’s government. At the same time, it’s important to remember that there is a real human cost to economic sanctions and international isolation.

 


*In 2016. Data collected by the Central University of Venezuela, the Andrés Bello Catholic University and Simón Bolívar University. The government of Venezuela hasn’t released data on poverty in the country since 2015. See the full survey here.

Let the games begin: Brexit negotiations are officially underway

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Davis, met in Brussels to mark the beginning of what promises to be one hell of a ride. Although it’s been nearly a year since the ‘Leave’ won with 52% of the vote in the historic Brexit referendum, the current political climate knows no more stability than it did on June 23rd, 2016. Nevertheless, both Barnier and Davis used their opening remarks today to set a “positive and constructive tone” for the talks.

Sounds like wishful thinking

While the optimism expressed by both Barnier and Davis today was admirable, it was also painfully transparent. Over the past year, EU and UK leadership have been trying (and failing) to demonstrate ‘strength’ and ‘unity’ in the face of one of the biggest political challenges of our time. On this first day of Brexit negotiations, all we saw was yet another meek attempt to convince citizens that everything will be just fine. Instead of making anyone feel better, the messages of camaraderie and a better future coming from Barnier and Davis felt awkward, forced, and disconnected from reality.

In Westminster, the word ‘stability’ has lost all meaning

In the UK, claims to political stability are honestly laughable. Prime Minister Theresa May is still reeling from the spectacular failure of her plan to bring “unity” to Westminster with a general election. Not only did she lose her party’s majority government, but in the process she surrendered all claim to “strong and stable” leadership going into Brexit negotiations. But despite her failure, the UK government has made it very clear that their Brexit stance remains unchanged.

In a statement released Sunday, the UK government left no room for doubt regarding their plan to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ in the talks. This statement represents an outright refusal to recognise the challenges the UK is facing at home. By taking a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to Brexit negotiations, the UK government is setting the stage for debilitating complications as the talks move forward.

Lessons from Day 1

According to Barnier, Brexit negotiations are off to a good start. Davis agreed, adding that a “solid foundation for future discussions” was laid out in today’s session.

The progress so far? Both sides have agreed on an initial timeline, involving 4 weeks of bargaining rounds, with 1 week per month dedicated exclusively to head-to-head bargaining. They also agreed that negotiations will be carried out in English and French. Now all that’s left is agreeing on a financial settlement, the rights of EU and UK citizens, trade deals, and the impact on borders, particularly in Ireland – all in under 21 months.

But it’ll be fine. We just need to stay positive.

Yes, it is that bad: What are residential schools, and who is Senator Lynn Beyak?

On Tuesday, March 7th, Senator Lynn Beyak took to the floor of the Canadian senate to speak about residential schools. For those of you outside of Canada, residential schools were institutions of cultural genocide. From the 19th century up until the 1970s, Indigenous children were ripped from their homes and transported to schools where they were robbed of their First Nations identity. Children were refused their language, their spiritual teachings and practice, their culture, and their human dignity. The objective of this institution was to assimilate and anglicize Indigenous communities by slowly stamping out First Nations identities.

The horrific accounts of physical and sexual abuse, and inhumane living conditions were made public in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report. Findings showed that residential schools claimed the lives of over 3,000 First Nations children due to malnutrition, neglect, and abuse.

When Senator Beyak spoke to the Senate last week, she decided to ignore the ‘bad press’ residential schools have received. Instead, Beyak chose to focus on the positive. According to Beyak, residential schools were full of “well-intentioned men and women… whose remarkable works, good deeds and historic tales in the residential schools go unacknowledged for the most part.”

Before you brush off her comments as merely ignorant and uninformed, I’d like to tell you a little about Beyak’s professional experience. For several years, she dedicated her talents to education, even serving as vice-chair of the Fort Frances-Rainy River board of education. This district is home to 23 First Nations reserves, and over 500 native Ojibwe* speakers. Currently, Beyak is a member of three Senate committees: Agriculture and Forestry, National Security and Defence, and Aboriginal Peoples.

What we see in Beyak’s CV is that on at least two separate occasions she has served as an influential, public-sector authority figure while interacting with First Nations issues and communities. Beyak’s comments about residential schools do not reflect ignorance but a total unwillingness to confront the devastating human rights abuses inflicted on generations of First Nations people. As a member of the Aboriginal Peoples Senate committee, Beyak is considered an authority on issues relevant to Canada’s Indigenous population. Even though Beyak refuses to recognize the way in which government institutions were developed specifically to oppress and marginalize Indigenous peoples in Canada, her opinion is relevant when it comes to debating legislation pertinent to First Nations issues.

The process of coming to terms with the treatment of First Nations people has only just begun in Canada. It appears as though non-Indigenous Canadians are starting to listen and engage with First Nations communities in order to understand the complexities of systemic oppression as experienced by Indigenous peoples. Beyak’s comments are harmful to this process because they legitimize the outright denial of any wrongdoing on the part of the institution (and by extention, the Canadian government).

Beyak is arguing that due to the ‘good intentions’ of the individuals responsible for residential schools, the institution itself was not that bad. Yes, Senator Beyak, they were that bad. It’s time to accept that Canada’s history is no different than any other colonial power and fully commit to dismantling systemic oppression.

Sign the petition calling for the resignation of Senator Beyak here.


*Ojibwe is a Central Algonquian language spoken by the Anishinaabe people in the Great Lakes region. Ojibwe speakers can be found in Canada (Ontario and Manitoba) and in the United States (Wisconsin and Minnesota). Read more about Ojibwe by clicking here.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”: What just happened with Sen. Elizabeth Warren?

On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took to the floor of the US Senate to voice her opposition to the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. She presented two letters which had been read during the 1986 Senate hearing regarding the nomination of Sessions to serve as a federal district court judge, which resulted in the Senate Judiciary Committee rejecting Sessions’ nomination.

At first glance, all is as it should be. There is no question that both letters (one written by the late civil rights leader, Coretta Scott King, and the other written by the late senator, Edward M. Kennedy) contain information pertinent to Sessions’ nomination. Then why is it that Warren was subsequently banned from speaking further in the Senate debate concerning Sessions’ nomination?

According to Senate Republicans, Warren was in violation of Rule 19 of the United States Senate. Never heard of it? That’s because it is seldom, if ever, applied. It is a century-old rule which attempts to govern decorum in the Senate by prohibiting “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

In Warren’s case, the Senate charged Warren with ‘impugning Sessions’ character’ with the content of the King and Kennedy letters. While it is not made entirely clear what counts as a violation of Rule 19, it seems as though Senate Republicans took issue with Sessions being called a “disgrace” by Kennedy. The King letter then added insult to injury when King denounced Sessions for abuse of power, intimidating black voters and demonstrating racial bias while on the bench.

Apparently, these words were reason to silence Warren until after the vote on Sessions. Although it remains to be seen why the King and Kelly letters were enough to bring up Rule 19. When Sen. Tom Cotton called then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid “bitter, vulgar, [and] incoherent,” nothing happened. Or when Sen. Ted Cruz accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (the same Mitch McConnell who interrupted Warren’s speech and called for Rule 19 to be used to silence her) of lying to him in the summer of 2015, Rule 19 was not invoked.

What is it then, that makes Warren so special? The short answer is nothing. It was clear from the beginning that Sessions’ nomination, which was accepted by the Senate on Wednesday night, was going to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate. So why did McConnell push to have her silenced?

I see it as yet another gross miscalculation on behalf of the Republican party. In silencing Warren, McConnell has made Warren’s voice louder than ever. Not only has King’s letter been shared countless of times across news media outlets and social media sites, but Warren has proved that silencing her in the Senate only gives her more power and legitimacy. McConnell may have even kick-started a potential bid for presidential candidacy on Warren’s behalf when he uttered three simple words that lit-up Twitter: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Here we have seen another example of the arrogance guiding Trump’s Administration, and the severe miscalculations taking place in the absence of competent and coherent leadership. McConnell’s move to silence Warren has not only empowered her voice, but the voice of the opposition in general. Despite a House and Senate majority, the Republican party remains to be on shaky ground, with no stability in sight.


Updated: This post has been updated following the Senate vote (8 February, 2017) comfirming Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination for Attorney General.