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Why Latin America Needs To Move Against Maduro Right Now

The economic and political tragedy unfolding in Venezuela should be a call to action for the rest of the region's countries, especially with the early presidential election (April 22) looming.

Protests continue in Venezuela against Presdient Maduro
Protests continue in Venezuela against Presdient Maduro
AméricaEconomía

-Editorial-

SANTIAGO — As tens of thousands of Venezuelans try to cross the borders into Colombia and Brazil to escape a country in ruins, a fraudulent legislative power opted to forward the country's presidential elections to April 22 and a shoddy judiciary barred the candidacies of opposition leaders. All the while, Venezuela continues to enjoy the backing of Bolivia and Cuba. And here in Chile, the government invited President Nicolás Maduro to next month's presidential transfer ceremony.

The slow-motion tragedy destroying Venezuela could have been avoided if Latin American governments and the world had had the courage to isolate the illegitimate Venezuelan president in 2015, when he took control of the judiciary, or in 2017 when he sidelined the democratically elected parliament to replace it with a puppet assembly.

It's still not too late, but on April 22 it will be.

Britain's The Economist reports that only 25% of Venezuelans support Maduro. And yet, he's likely to win the election because he has disqualified his two biggest rivals: Leopoldo López, who is under house arrest; and Henrique Capriles, who has been banned from seeking public office.

Maduro knows that the opposition is divided over how to confront him, so he is actively encouraging them to field candidates. As a coalition, the opposition's Table of Democratic Unity (which goes by the acronym MUD in Spanish) is considering not taking part in the vote. Participating in the process, they reason would legitimize it. But there's nothing stopping MUD's individual member parties from presenting candidates.

Some of the names being considered are Henri Falcón, a former governor of the state of Lara; Henry Ramos Allup, head of the aging Democratic Action party; and, as a possible consensus candidate, Lorenzo Mendoza, a business executive who leads the food and beverage corporation Empresas Polar. But even if opponents manage to unite around a name, that person will have just 17 days to campaign — from April 2-19, as dictated by the government-imposed rules.

The result of the pseudo-election will be a victory for Maduro, who will thus stay on until 2022. A poll taken in January by consultants Meganálisis showed that barely 29% of Venezuelans want to vote now. Why? Because it "won't make a difference," respondents said.

The economy, in the meantime, continues to tank, and food, medicine, and fuel are scarce. The IMF expects inflation to reach 13,000% this year, and Venezuelans can only withdraw 10,000 bolivars a day — approximately $0.04 — from ATMs. Street protests and calls for insurrection have been silenced with guns. Three million Venezuelans or 10% of the population have fled the country, and the numbers amassed on the Colombian border have forced that country to restrict migration. Brazil is considering a similar move, as Venezuela's crisis becomes a refugee crisis.

Time to take a stand

The Lima Group of 14 Latin American states made the right decision a few days back to rescind its invitation to Maduro for the Eighth Summit of the Americas to be held in the Peruvian capital on April 13 and 14. Our outgoing leader, Michelle Bachelet, should do the same regarding the event on March 11, when she steps down and Sebastián Piñera takes over as Chile's head of state.

The Lima Group's decision is a good one, but it's not enough. More political and diplomatic measures are needed, and governments throughout the region must impose economic and financial sanctions in concert.

América Economía has always opposed the U.S. embargo on Cuba. And until now, we chose not to support an oil embargo on Venezuela, fearing such a move would only add to the suffering people there are forced to endure. But today, oil revenues merely serve to consolidate Maduro's rule. He has used them to pay his debts and avoid a default rather than import food and medicine.

On his last Latin American tour, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened restrictions on Venezuelan oil imports. That's unlikely to happen. But what if Venezuela's customers cut imports gradually, steadily closing the tap in the run-up to April 22 as warning that the world will close the door on Maduro if he proceeds with his elections?

After last year's street protests, it's undeniable that Maduro has clung to power through force. He and his gang are not moved by ideals, and it would be ridiculous at this point to call them socialists. They are a criminal gang of soldiers and politicians who have taken over a state, corrupting and drugging its institutions. And the only way to oust them is through a combination of intense pressure, threats regarding their personal futures, and negotiations.

The measures that have put the most pressure on Maduro and his people are those taken by the United States and European Union, namely freezing their assets and forbidding entry to various members in Maduro's inner circle, like his deputy Diosdado Cabello. Latin America's democratic countries must take similar measures, draft a list of undesirable Maduro cronies who will not be allowed entry, and ensure they cannot buy assets or open accounts in their countries. They must multiply their efforts to isolate Maduro and his gang, and force them to negotiate their exit. The tragedy that Venezuelans are experiencing on a daily basis demands nothing less.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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