Venezuela court orders opponent’s arrest as pressure mounts
By Joshua Goodman and Fabiola Sánchez
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s supreme court ordered the removal and arrest of a Caracas-area mayor at the heart of recent anti-government protests and President Nicolas Maduro’s all-powerful constitutional assembly planned to meet again Tuesday, forging ahead on vows to punish the socialist leader’s foes.
The government-packed high court sentenced Ramon Muchacho to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up in the leafy Chacao district of eastern Caracas where the Emory University MBA graduate has been mayor since 2013. He’s the fourth opposition mayor whose arrest the high court has sought in the past two weeks. The court also ordered an investigation into another prominent Caracas-area mayor, David Smolansky, for the same alleged crimes.
Muchacho’s whereabouts were not immediately known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter, saying that “all of the weight of the revolutionary injustice has fallen on my shoulders” for doing his job to guarantee the constitutional right to protest.
Chacao was previously governed by Leopoldo Lopez, the most prominent activist to have been jailed by the Maduro government, and is the main gathering point for protests that have left at least 124 dead and hundreds more injured or arrested.
The crackdown on the opposition following last month’s widely questioned vote to elect the constitutional assembly is likely to dominate a meeting in Peru on Tuesday where foreign ministers from more than a dozen Latin American governments were gathering to discuss how to force Maduro to back down.
Peru’s president has been vocal in rejecting the new Venezuelan assembly, but the region has had trouble agreeing on collective actions. Still, Venezuela is facing mounting pressure and threats of deepening sanctions from trade partners. It was recently suspended from South America’s Mercosur trade bloc and the Trump administration sanctioned several top officials including Maduro.
Maduro has remained firm in pressing the constitutional assembly forward in executing his priorities. As a counter to the Peru meeting, he was hosting a meeting of foreign ministers from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations.
The new constitutional assembly has signaled it will act swiftly in following through with Maduro’s commands. It voted Saturday to replace chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz with a government loyalist and create a “truth commission” that will wield unusual power to prosecute and levy sentences.
“It should be clear: We arrived there to help President Nicolas Maduro, but also to create strong bases for the construction of Bolivarian and Chavista socialism,” Diosdado Cabello, a leader of the ruling socialist party and member of the new assembly, told a crowd of supporters Monday.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, vowed to remain in their posts in their only government foothold — the country’s single-chamber congress — despite threats from the constitutional assembly to strip them of any authority and lock up key leaders. Lawmakers voted unanimously Monday not to recognize any of the new super body’s decrees.
They also are vowing to remain on the streets, beginning with a call for supporters for to blockade streets and bring the nation to a standstill.
Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. The U.N.’s human rights commissioner warned of in a report issued Tuesday of “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators and detainees in Venezuela.
In the face of increasingly tough tactics, and divisions within the opposition about how to confront the government, turnout at recent demonstrations has been small.
“Maduro knows this country is ungovernable,” lawmaker Juan Requenses said late Monday in calling for a new wave of street demonstrations. “The only thing he wants today is for us to abandon the street.”
Opposition parties face a rapidly approaching deadline to decide whether they will take part in regional elections scheduled for December. Candidates are expected to sign up to run this week.
Opposition members refused to participate in the election for delegates to the constitutional assembly but have thus far been divided on taking part in the contests for governors.
While Maduro’s popular support is estimated to run at no higher than 20 percent, some opposition leaders are skeptical of running in regional elections they fear could be rigged. The official turnout count in the constitutional assembly election has been questioned at home and abroad. The CEO of voting technology company Smartmatic said last week that the results were “without a doubt” tampered with and off by at least 1 million votes.
Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva, contributed to this report.