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Venezuela clamps down on opposition politicians

Friday, August 11, 2017

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AFP) — Venezuela's opposition accused the government yesterday of persecuting their members after a second mayor was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

The sentence handed down Wednesday by the Supreme Court against David Smolansky, the opposition mayor of the Caracas suburb of El Hatillo, brought to 23 the number of mayors targeted by legal action, according to the opposition.

“Is this the peace that Maduro is talking about?” said Gerardo Blyde, the mayor of Baruta, a nearby municipality who also has had an investigation opened against him.

“None of us are afraid of the persecution. Maybe they'll go after our deputies now,” he said, referring to the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Meanwhile, the ruling party's number two has warned that opposition candidates wanting to compete in upcoming elections would need certificates of “good conduct” from a newly installed Constituent Assembly stacked with Maduro loyalists.

Maduro was expected to address the all-powerful assembly later in the day.

The assembly, which has been placed over the National Assembly, has been tasked to rewrite the constitution.

It already has sacked the attorney general, a Maduro appointee-turned-critic who opposed the creation of the Constituent Assembly as unconstitutional.

The United States and major Latin American nations have rejected it as an “illegitimate” body aimed at dismantling democratic rule in Venezuela.

The United States has slapped sanctions on Maduro and on several members of the new Constituent Assembly, which was elected last month amid allegations of fraud, deadly protests and an opposition boycott.

Venezuela has lodged protests with 11 embassies over the international condemnation, and railed against the United States for not respecting “any basic principle of international law”.

TENSIONS

The developments fuelled tensions that have been flaring in Venezuela for the past four months. Nearly 130 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces.

Smolansky's sentencing came just days after the Supreme Court sentenced the mayor of the Caracas muncipality of Chacao, Ramon Muchacho, to 15 months in prison for failing to prevent street protest in his district.

Both Smolansky and Muchacho were barred from holding public office.

In a video posted online, Smolanksy called for protests against his jailing “in all the streets” of his municipality. But early Thursday there was little response, beyond a barricade of trash across a road.

Protests have lost steam in the past week as security forces have stepped up repression and demonstrators have grown discouraged by the opposition's failure to bring change.

The opposition coalition, a grouping of around 30 disparate parties called the Democratic Unity Roundtable, has been struggling with how to keep pressure on Maduro, whom it wants to see ousted through early elections.

On Wednesday, after much debate, the coalition said it would contest overdue regional elections in Venezuela's 23 states on December 10, with the aim of holding Maduro to the electoral calendar, which also sees the next presidential election in October 2018.

Polls suggest the opposition would win most of the states, if the elections are fair, replicating its landslide 2015 victory in taking control of the National Assembly.

US AGAINST VENEZUELAN TYRANNY

Maduro and his government are deeply unpopular, as the country's 30 million citizens suffer under a long economic crisis that has resulted in shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation — a harsh reality for an oil-rich country that used to be one of Latin America's wealthiest.

One of the Constituent Assembly's most powerful members, Diosdado Cabello, argued that the opposition jump through another hoop before it could take part in the regional elections.

He said its candidates should apply for “certificates of good conduct” from the assembly attesting that they would prevent any violence in the streets.

The election of the new assembly and its campaign against the opposition has drawn fire from Washington.

“President Maduro swore in this illegitimate Constituent Assembly to further entrench his dictatorship, and continues to tighten his grip on the country,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the latest sanctions.

“This regime's disregard for the will of the Venezuelan people is unacceptable, and the United States will stand with them in opposition to tyranny until Venezuela is restored to a peaceful and prosperous democracy.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza shot back on state television that the US was “making a fool of itself in front of the world”.

“Venezuela can't be sanctioned by anything or anybody,” he said.

Although broadly criticised, Venezuela is not entirely isolated internationally.

It can count on the support of Russia and China — which have granted tens of billions of US dollars in loans to Venezuela — as well as leftist allies Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and small Caribbean nations (such as Jamaica) which it gives cheap oil.

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