Venezuela: Controversy and bloodshed mark start of election campaign

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was moved from jail to house arrest on July 8.
July 14, 2017

Venezuelans were taken by surprise with the announcement that opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez would serve out his jail term under house arrest. The move is an unprecedented concession that seeks to calm the waters in the lead up to the July 30 Constituent Assembly elections. 

But the conflict in the country is showing it has multiple faces. On July 10, a day after the official election campaign began, a candidate was assassinated in the middle of a campaign event.

House arrest

Government and opposition supporters alike were taken by surprise on the morning of July 8 when the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) announced that Lopez was being moved from Ramo Verde prison to his home to serve out the rest of his term under house arrest.

The move was initially celebrated as a victory in the opposition camp and without doubt triggered consternation among government supporters.

A founder of the Popular Will party, Leopoldo Lopez was charged and found guilty of being one of the main instigators and organisers of the campaign known as “La Salida” (The Way Out). This was the name that the Venezuelan opposition gave to the acts of street violence that left 43 people dead in 2014. Lopez is also facing charges of public instigation, damage to property, arson and criminal association.

Much like the events that began in April this year, the aim then was to bring down the government of President Nicolas Maduro by openly destabilising the country.

In line with the arguments given by the government, the Committee of Victims of the 2014 Guarimbas (a term used to refer to violent street protests and blockades) expressed its position: “We the victims will not be the ones to close the door on a possible dialogue and reconciliation of the country”, it said, not before making it clear that “Leopoldo Lopez is to blame for the 43 deaths in 2014”.

The TSJ decision must be considered within the national political context. Without a doubt, it represents a peace offering that seeks to calm the waters inside and outside the country to stabilise the political process and inject new life into a possible dialogue. At the same time, the opposition celebrating a TSJ decision puts into question its attitude of delegitimising and refusing to recognise any initiatives from the state.

The campaign to free Lopez has been one of the main banners of the Venezuelan opposition. While he was converted into a living martyr to his supporters, his wife, Lilian Tintori, became a virtual ambassador for the attempts by the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition to pressure, place conditions on and diplomatically isolate the Venezuelan government.

After receiving her husband at home, Tintori declared on social media: “I want to thank [until recently Foreign Minister] Delcy Rodriguez and [Chavista mayor] Jorge Rodriguez ... if we have to work together to be able to understand each other; achieve harmony, count on me”.

Her words did not go unnoticed by other opposition leaders. She not only revealed that, in effect, a channel of negotiation between a sector of the opposition and the government exists, something that on previous occasions had been flatly denied; she also generated doubts about the continuity of the program of street protests promoted by the MUD and the level of cohesion the opposition coalition would maintain from now on.

Among political cannibals

The governor of the state of Miranda and leader of the Justice First opposition party, Henrique Capriles Radonski, did not hesitate to add fuel to the debate on July 9. He made strong, though indirect remarks against Tintori and her colleagues: “You have to have a good memory after lying.”

And after saying there was no way that the protests planned for the next day would be halted, he made it clear that he was giving free rein to his supporters. He went further on July 11 and said that “Lilian is not a politician. The politician is Leopoldo”.

Nevertheless, the reality shows that the mobilising capacity of the opposition has declined following the initial enthusiasm it received. The prolongation of the stalemate in the conflict has also worn down the MUD.

The greater role being taken by shock troops belonging to more radicalised sectors has pushed away a section of possible supporters who do not agree with violent methods.

Moreover, if Lopez’s house arrest is just the first step towards his possible liberation and return to politics, his popularity will undoubtedly overshadow the rest of the anti-Chavista leaders in any primaries for an eventual election race.

On July 16, the MUD will carry out its biggest demonstration of force for a plebiscite it has called with the intention of not recognising the legitimacy of the National Constituent Assembly convoked by the government. Although it will be a symbolic initiative, the result will seek to measure how much support it has been able to build over the past three months of protest.

Violence

July 10 opened up a new phase in the actions taken by violent groups that are seeking to impose themselves on the political process. In the city of Maracay, in Aragua state, a candidate to the constituent assembly, Jose Luis Rivas Aranguren, was assassinated in the middle of an election campaign meeting.

That same afternoon, a group of Bolivarian National Guard soldiers on motorbikes was attacked in Altamira, in Caracas, with a remote-controlled explosive. Seven soldiers and a journalist were injured.

Parallel to this, 16-year-old Ruben Dario Gonzalez was assassinated in La Isabelica, in the city of Valencia, while participating in a road blockade called by the opposition. It has not yet been determined where the shot was fired from and there were no security forces present when the act occurred.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has condemned the use of minors in protests.

Despite a window of opportunity opening up for national dialogue, these events raise doubts about the level of autonomy and organisational structure that armed opposition groups, collectively referred to as “La Resistencia”, have acquired.

While the decision on Lopez was well received by the international public, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio (renown promoter of the Venezuelan opposition) threaten that Venezuela would face sanctions if the Constituent Assembly went ahead.

And important questions remain: Despite the gestures by a sector of the opposition, is the agenda of violence not simply a complement to its intentions to obstruct the Constituent process? And with less than two weeks until the July 30 elections, and given how it has started, what new levels of violence will be adopted?

[Translated from Notas by Federico Fuentes.]

Issue