Geopolitics

Venezuela, Constitutional Dictatorship Or Drug-Gang Regime?

Venezuela's socialist President Nicolás Maduro has brought his country to the lowest socio-economic levels in its history. His clinging to power is a dangerous thing.

Opposition protest in Caracas, Venezuela
Opposition protest in Caracas, Venezuela

-Editorial-

Santiago de León Caracas, or "Caracas' as the capital of Venezuela is known to most, is the city with the third worst quality of life in Latin America. A 2016 report by the Mercer consulting firm found only Havana and Port au Prince to be worse places to live in from a list of 123 cities across the region, based on criteria that include socio-economic levels, transport, schools and crime. It's a new low for Caracas, which has been steadily dropping in the list over the past few years.

Meanwhile, a new report on nutrition on the website Prodavinci finds that Venezuelans have been eating less and less since 2013. It cited figures by the government statistics agency INE to show that through the second half of 2013 and the first half of 2014, households cut their intake of 57 out of 62 listed food items. INE found that between 2013 and 2015, the number of Venezuelans who ate more than three times a day fell from just over 14 million to just under 12 million, with a corresponding rise in people eating less than three meals a day.

Venezuela is experiencing the worst economic collapse in the modern history of Latin America. All Venezuelans able to migrate seem to have done so, and the country finds itself with a severe dearth of qualified technicians and professionals. The late President Hugo Chávez dismantled the country's productive apparatus, focusing instead on the production and export of oil, while importing virtually everything else.

In Caracas, Venezuela — Photo: Joka Madruga/Terra Livre Press/ComunicaSul

Infrastructure has deteriorated to the point where power and water shortages and damaged roads are the norm now. Schools and offices open two or three days a week, and life in a Venezuelan city has become a daily misery consisting of trying to buy food, avoiding muggers and learning to live without reliable electricity or tap water. With pharmaceutical shortages, people have turned to home remedies. Inflation is fluttering at three-digit heights, and childbirth and infant mortality are on the rise.

Others qualify it more plainly as a drug gang in power.

All this explains why 70% of Venezuelans disapprove of President Nicolás Maduro. The government may insist it is doing fine, but who could dispute that it is time for Maduro to step down and put an early end to his "working-class presidency?" The government's political record seems as bad as its economics. The civil rights group Foro Penal observes a sharp rise in arbitrary arrests since Maduro was elected. While Chávez was happy with "just 113" political prisoners, Maduro has locked up 310, which Foro Penal divides into three categories: "those jailed to get them out of the political game," like conservative politician Leopoldo López and former mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma; "those in a particular social group," like student activists; and "propaganda detainees' held to "justify a particular measure."

Maduro is a duly elected president, but his own government violated the Venezuelans' right to vote in October 2016, when it suspended elections for mayors and state governors. They were suspended because regime candidates were set to lose, and no regime that does that can call itself democratic. By blocking the vote, Maduro acted as a dictator would.

Photo: Joka Madruga/TerraLivrePress.com

Indeed, there was a whiff of the dictator about him as soon as he took office exactly four years ago, with his predecessor's blessing. His first step was to meddle with the judiciary, as his mentor Chávez had begun to do, by naming loyal judges. That came in handy after the opposition won an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament, as the courts began to issue verdicts undermining, if not nullifying, the powers of the legislature. Maduro had the judiciary approve the state budget for 2017, which parliament had lawfully rejected, and his nominee as Central Bank chief.

Some are increasingly calling this presidency a "constitutional dictatorship," while others qualify it more plainly as a drug gang in power. The arrests in Miami of the president's two godsons Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores was at least a pointer to the regime's alleged drug-related shenanigans. They were said to be linked to the so-called "Suns cartel," a trafficking gang supposedly run by Venezuelan generals.

The United States is now accusing Maduro's first Vice-President Tareck El Aissami of being a drug kingpin and has frozen his monies in the United States, which shows an increasingly clear policy by the Trump administration to confront the regime and back the opposition. The secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, has proposed suspending Venezuela from the OAS until proper democracy is restored, and called for presidential elections scheduled for 2018 to be forwarded to this year.

We agree with Almagro. We believe Venezuela cannot take any more of the Maduro regime. The time has come for other Latin American governments to demand free, and immediate, general elections in Venezuela.

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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