Venezuela News Review | November 14 - 21

This week’s headlines are dominated by Maduro’s refusal to hold early elections, National Assembly lawmakers stepping down to trigger fresh elections, Venezuela’s high court forbidding parliament from holding a trial against Maduro, the conviction of two Maduro nephews in a NY court for an attempt to smuggle drugs into the US, and the liberation of a political prisoner following government-opposition talks.


Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro rejects calls for early election

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has rejected calls to hold early elections despite opposition efforts to remove him from power.

Maduro made the comments Sunday during his weekly television program in reference to the Democratic Unity Roundtable opposition coalition's efforts to remove him -- at first through a recall referendum, which was suspended.

After Venezuela's high court, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, stalled the recall referendum efforts, opposition politicians began calling for early elections, which Maduro dismissed.

"Nobody should get obsessed with electoral processes that are not in the constitution," Maduro said. "An electoral way out? Way out to where?". Maduro's term ends early 2019.

Key Venezuela lawmakers step down in concession to government

Three opposition lawmakers at the center of a dispute between Venezuela's congress and its top court stepped down on Tuesday following a Vatican-backed agreement meant to ease a political standoff between the opposition and President Nicolas Maduro.

Lawmakers Julio Ygarza, Nirma Guarulla and Romel Guzamana, two from the Amazonas jungle state and one who represents indigenous groups, were key to handing the opposition a super majority in December 2015's legislative elections.

But a Supreme Court order banned them on allegations of fraud in January.

The National Assembly defied the government by reinstating them in July, leading authorities to declare congress illegitimate and setting up a power clash with the socialist government.

The lawmakers submitted their resignations in writing to congress on Tuesday to trigger fresh elections for the three seats.

Venezuela's high court forbids parliament from holding Maduro trial

Venezuela's high court on Tuesday approved an injunction against the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) issued the injunction that opposition parliamentarians refrain from carrying out a proposed "political judgment" against President Nicolas Maduro or any other act deemed "unconstitutional."

The TSJ's ruling comes after the opposition coalition vowed this week to bring Maduro to trial. The National Assembly in late October said Maduro would stand trial after the opposition's efforts to carry out a recall referendum were suspended by the National Electoral Council, which is accused, along with the TSJ, of favoring Maduro.

The opposition lawmakers said Maduro staged a coup d'etat by ordering unconstitutional actions, referring to the suspension of the referendum.

Despite the TSJ's ruling, the opposition said it will continue with the trial.

Nephews of Venezuela first lady convicted of cocaine plot

Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady could face life in prison after they were convicted for trying to smuggle almost 2,000 pounds of cocaine into the US last year.

A Manhattan federal court jury returned its verdict against Efrain Campo, 30, and his cousin Francisco Flores, 31, after less than a day of deliberations.

US District Judge Paul A. Crotty said the defendants would not be sentenced before March, though no date was set.

Assistant US Attorney Brendan Quigley said the defendants thought they were above the law. 'They thought they could operate with impunity in Venezuela because of who they were and who they were related to,' Quigley said in a closing argument Thursday.

'They thought they could easily make tons of money sending drugs out of the country because, as defendant Flores said, the DEA is not here and the Americans don't come in here. But they were wrong.'

Venezuela frees jailed politician, opposition seeks more releases

Venezuela has freed a politician accused of fomenting violent protests in 2014, but opposition leaders said on Friday it was not enough and demanded President Nicolas Maduro's government release all 100 or so jailed opponents.

The liberation of Rosmit Mantilla, a well-known activist for the Popular Will party, came amid Vatican-brokered talks between the socialist government and the opposition.

"I remain hopeful my comrades still behind bars will be freed commitment remains strong for all Venezuelans’ freedom" Mantilla, 33, told reporters after being released and going straight to hospital for gall bladder surgery.

Mantilla was arrested in his grandparents’ apartment and accused of helping finance anti-Maduro protests that led to violence and 43 deaths in 2014. Supporters say authorities framed him by placing envelopes with money in the apartment.

Amnesty International welcomed Mantilla's release, saying he was victimized for rights work. "He should have never been made to spend a second behind bars. The Venezuelan authorities must now build on this positive step and release all imprisoned activists and political leaders whose only 'crime' was to disagree with the government," it said.

Local rights group Penal Forum says that after Mantilla's release, Venezuela still holds 108 political prisoners, and is using them as chips in the Vatican-mediated negotiations. The opposition coalition puts the number higher at 135.

Additional headlines

Venezuela said it would tap $2.2bn from a Chinese credit line to boost oil output at joint ventures with China National Petroleum Corp, in a boost for the South American country’s struggling oil industry and a show of unity with a key ally. President Maduro said Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA will seek to boost production by around 277,000 barrels per day.

Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of food company Polar, Venezuela’s largest private firm, was barred on Thursday from flying to Ecuador on a company plane for a business conference and held for fours hours at a regional airport of Barquisimeto. "Polar denounces harassment of its president," the company said, adding the detention was illegal and that official reason had been given for prohibiting Mendoza from boarding the plane.

Multinational companies are selling their Venezuelan operations at hefty discounts - or even giving them away - as they to seek to escape the OPEC nation's soaring inflation and chronic supply shortages. Six firms, including General Mills GIS.N and oil producer Harvest Natural Resources HNR.N, have sold operations for as little as half their assessed value on the companies' books, according to securities filings and interviews with a dozen people knowledgeable about the deals.

Analysis and commentary

Writing for The Guardian, Reynaldo Trombetta, said “Very few outside Venezuela seem to have the courage to describe it as such, but the country under Nicolás Maduro is now a dictatorship. The heir of Hugo Chávez has shown that he will happily violate all principles of democracy and human rights to remain in power. For years, Chávez proudly reminded the world how many elections he had won, and how his revolution was giving a voice to the impoverished masses. Today, Maduro has no interest in anybody else’s voice – especially the growing majority that opposes him.”

And concludes his article by saying: “Meanwhile there is very little that the international community can do to help. But it would be refreshing to see the British ask questions to those that are doing business with a dictatorship. Why has BP been selling oil to Venezuela? Why is British public relations firm Bell Pottinger, according to Bloomberg, whitewashing the reputation of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA? Why is Unite, the largest trade union in Britain, hosting PR events in London in support of Maduro? Do they all know they are taking money from a dictatorship? Do they care? And what about Jeremy Corbyn and all those politicians that have spoken out and signed letters in support of Maduro? We would love to hear what they have to say about all this.”