Venezuela Crisis


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Venezuela is fast becoming a ‘mafia state’: here’s what you need to know


Anthea McCarthy-Jones, UNSW

Last week, Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for his second six-year term as Venezuela’s president. Maduro won the election off the back of international condemnation of vote buying and electoral fraud. While the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, called Venezuela’s government “illegitimate”, Maduro declared:

Venezuela is at the centre of a world war led by the United States imperialism and its satellite countries.

Such statements have become par for the course by a leader and government determined to frame Venezuela’s political, social and economic woes as a product of a protracted ideological battle with the United States.

While these discursive tactics may hold some traction with small parts of the population, the harsh reality of life in Venezuela and the government’s inability and, at times, unwillingness to address clear policy failings has significantly reduced support for President Maduro and his government.




Read more:
Venezuelans reject Maduro presidency — but most would oppose foreign military operation to oust him


The scale of Venezuela’s current social, economic and political crisis is so severe it is difficult to comprehend. Hyperinflation has decimated the national currency and crippled the economy. Oil production – which accounts for 95% of the country’s export revenues – has halved since President Maduro took power in 2013 and the industry has been further weakened by the collapse of the price of oil in 2014.

In 2018, the economy contracted by 18% and by the end of the year inflation had soared to 1 million percent. The IMF has predicted inflation will increase to 10 million percent by the latter half of 2019. These are dizzying figures but they only reflect one part of the complex situation Venezuela is facing.

Across the country there are power cuts, food and medicine shortages, increasing internal security problems, rising homicide rates and wide-spread malnutrition. According to the UN, these factors have resulted in three million people fleeing the country since 2015 making it the largest exodus in Venezuelan history.

So, how did it come to this?

The foundations of President Maduro’s current problems date back to the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. The spectacular rise in popularity of Chavismo, which promoted the cult of Chávez as the liberator of the Venezuelan people, became the vehicle in which Chávez successfully consolidated his legitimacy and the significant political changes made during his time in power from 1999-2013.




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The good, the bad and the ugly: Hugo Chávez and the international left


Chávez employed a charismatic leadership style that positioned himself as a man of the people rather than a member of the elite. He used transformation and transaction tactics to govern and maintain legitimacy. He was a keen orator and used his weekly TV program to connect with the masses. Chavismo rests on socialist values and calls for an independent Latin America, free from the US.

While Maduro shares the same politics – and was the foreign minister in the Chávez government – his problems centre on his inability to emulate Chávez’s leadership style to generate the type of popular support and perceived legitimacy of his predecessor.

As a result, Maduro has increasingly sought to centralise power in the executive and systematically remove political rivals and members of the Venezuelan opposition from participating in democratic processes. For instance, he led the creation of a constituent assembly as a means to bypass the opposition-controlled national assembly.

His controversial changes to the 2018 presidential election, such as bringing it forward by six months to limit the time the opposition had to organise a strong campaign, as well as allegations of vote tampering, point to the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the regime.




Read more:
Refugees from Venezuela are fleeing to Latin American cities, not refugee camps


However, Venezuela under President Maduro has gone beyond simply transitioning to a more concentrated authoritarian-style rule. Venezuela has now morphed into what has been termed a “mafia state”.

Venezuela – the mafia state

A mafia state refers to a state that has effectively been criminalised. Here, criminal entities have successfully infiltrated and compromised government institutions at all levels. Currently, more than 100 Venezuelan government officials – ranging from but not limited to individuals in the ministries of the vice president, defence, foreign affairs, intelligence and the national guard – have been implicated in criminal activity.

The clearest example of the complex nexus between criminality and the Venezuelan state has been the emergence of a powerful Venezuelan drug trafficking organisation known as the Cartel of the Suns. The organisation’s name is a reference to the gold stars on epaulettes of military generals but is more generally symbolic of the direct links between serving government officials and the drug trafficking organisation.

Former Vice President Tarek el-Aissami and former President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello, are allegedly involved in the Cartel of the Suns and are among a litany of Venezuelan officials who have had sanctions imposed on them by the United States.

Venezuela’s first lady, Celia Flores, is also implicated by association. Her nephews have been convicted of trafficking cocaine in the United States, and according to Insight Crime, Ms Flores’s son is also under investigation in relation to drug trafficking activities.

Beginning with President Chávez and continuing under President Maduro, Venezuela has evolved into a rampant kleptocracy. The systematic removal of transparency and accountability in the Venezuela political system has allowed tens of billions of dollars to disappear from the treasury over the past two decades.

Maduro blames the US for the country’s crisis.

For example, in November 2018 a former bodyguard of President Chávez, who later went on to become the treasurer of Venezuela, pled guilty to receiving more than US$1 billion in bribes.

Venezuela’s outlook is bleak. The opposition remains fractured but continues to dispute President Maduro’s legitimacy and right to govern, and it appears to be almost impossible for the opposition to pressure President Maduro to negotiate while he continues to enjoy the support of the Venezuelan military.




Read more:
Venezuela election: Maduro claims close victory, but opposition to challenge


At this point the parties have reached an impasse and if current trends continue, things will get much worse in Venezuela before they can have a chance of getting better.The Conversation

Anthea McCarthy-Jones, Lecturer, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Has Venezuela become a totalitarian regime?


Miguel Angel Latouche, Universidad Central de Venezuela

So far, the new year has not gone well for Venezuela. Neither did 2017 or 2016, of course, but it turns out a bad crisis can always get worse.

January 2018 began with riots and looting of grocery stores across the country, a sign of pervasive hunger. Then, on Jan. 12, a crowd stormed a cattle ranch in rural Mérida and stoned a cow to death for its meat.

For a political scientist like myself, Venezuela today recalls Russia’s Great Famine, with its bread lines, empty shelves, food riots and acts of wild desperation.

Despite overseeing this plunge into poverty and hunger, President Nicolás Maduro has said he’ll run for a second term this year. Election Day has yet to be scheduled but already the prospect of Maduro’s re-election has raised furious debate about the country’s future: Can this president-turned-dictator be toppled?

A country in shambles

In theory, Maduro should go down easily at the polls. His approval rating is a dismal 20 percent, and his regime has proven unable or unwilling to ease Venezuela’s suffering.

The creation of the “petro,” a cryptocurrency introduced by the president in December to “liberate” Venezuela from dependence on the U.S. dollar, has not stemmed hyperinflation. At 2,616 percent and rising, inflation in Venezuela is now the highest in the world.

The worthless currency worsens ongoing food shortages. Last February it was reported that Venezuelans had lost, on average, 19 pounds since the crisis began in 2015.

Poverty is a stunning 82 percent. To be sure, people with connections can still spend millions of bolivares on dinner in five-star restaurants in the Las Mercedes neighborhood. But university professors like myself can no longer even dream of meals out in a Caracas of expensive cars, well-lit streets and teeming nightclubs.

Still, urban professionals are better off than many. By late 2017, the first Venezuelan children had begun to die of malnutrition.

When institutions deteriorate

Despite this humanitarian crisis, Maduro retains a near-total grip on power. That’s because Venezuela is no longer a democracy.

The president’s Socialist Party holds complete control over electoral institutions. Late last year, they used it to sweep two key elections late last year, putting regime-friendly mayors and governors into office nationwide. These wins were essentially rigged, but they still crushed the once-powerful opposition and emboldened President Maduro to seek a second term.

Caricature of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president turned dictator.
DonkeyHotey/flickr, CC BY-SA

In some ways, hunger has also benefited the regime. Doling out favors like food and health care to shore up loyalty, Socialists continue to dominate in the poor and working-class areas where “El Chavismo” – as the regime founded by Hugo Chávez is known – has for 20 years derived its power. When people depend on government subsidies to survive, bad economics can be good politics.

Meanwhile, the government has also persecuted and prosecuted the opposition. In April 2017, the longtime resistance leader Henrique Capriles was banned for life from politics, though he says he’d still try to run against Maduro if his party asked him to.

More recently, Julio Borges, former National Assembly president, was accused of “conspiracy against the homeland.” He will likely stand trial within the next few months.

And Leopoldo López, once a star of the Venezuelan resistance, is now under house arrest.

The National Assembly, Venezuela’s opposition-led parliament, was also dismantled last year, its duties usurped by a new legislative body, the so-called Constituent Assembly, created by Maduro and stacked with his supporters.

There have also been subtler attacks. Regime-friendly newspapers question Capriles’ sexual preference, damaging his reputation in this Catholic country. Officials dismiss Ramos Allup, former president of the National Assembly and head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, as a “crazy old man.”

With its strongest leaders discredited, the Venezuelan resistance has now been all but destroyed. Gone are the days when Venezuelans marched in the streets daily to call for President Maduro’s overthrow. Most people are now too hungry, or too disheartened, to protest.

They’re also just generally afraid to go out into the streets. Venezuela’s murder rate is perhaps the highest in Latin America, though without government data it’s hard to know for sure. The government has tacitly embraced the violence: fear as social control.

Fight or flight

This untenable situation has driven tens of thousands of Venezuelans out of the country in recent years. Last October, I made the difficult decision to join them, leaving my ailing country.

I confess that this self-imposed exile is driven in part by fear. From hunger and scarcity to rampant violence and the constant military presence, Venezuela is basically a war zone right now.

More than danger, though, I fear imprisonment. Until my departure for Germany, I was director of the School of Social Communication at the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas. The school has frequently offended the Maduro regime by criticizing government attacks on the media – as have I, in loudly defending freedom of expression.

Seemingly in response, the university’s funding was cut. The president even publicly accused Provost Cecilia Garcia Arocha of lying, meddling in politics and “using [her position] to harm students.”

Hundreds of dissidents have been jailed for criticizing the regime. In early January, two protesters who shouted “Damn Maduro!” were arrested for “instigating hatred,” according to new “anti-hate” legislation passed by the regime-appointed National Constituent Assembly. They face a sentence of up to 20 years.

As a citizen I cannot stay silent about this dictatorship. So I left, and I took my 10-year-old son with me. Maybe we’ll go back in March as planned, but I doubt it.

Once a place for immigrants, Venezuela has become a place for no one.

The future is now

According to Omar Barboza, the recently inaugurated head of Venezuela’s opposition-dominated National Assembly, the legislature’s top priority this year should be ensuring that this year’s presidential election is free and fair.

But defeating Maduro at the ballot box may be impossible at this point. A single-party monopoly on power, lack of competitive opposition and debilitated political institutions are symptoms of a dangerous illness in a democracy.

Some opposition members are now calling for a military coup, saying it’s the only way out.

I don’t believe that’s a viable option, either. Venezuela’s armed forces have been bought, their generals offered lucrative contracts in mining and oil exploration. Despite some signs of unease last year when soldiers were deployed daily to beat down protesters, there is every indication that the military brass remains squarely behind Maduro.

The ConversationMaduro, I fear, is not going anywhere. 2018 will go down in history as the year Venezuela became a totalitarian regime.

Miguel Angel Latouche, Associate professor, Universidad Central de Venezuela

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paranoia and Purges For Venezuela As Oil Misery Continues


TIME

As the finances of Venezuela continue to deteriorate under the collapse of crude oil prices, the government of President Nicolas Maduro is becoming more paranoid and vindictive.

Venezuela derives the vast majority of its export earnings from sending oil overseas. With the largest endowment of crude oil reserves in the world, the oil-driven economy worked well for the late Hugo Chavez: he provided generous support for the poor, and built allies in the western hemisphere by dispensing cash and cheap oil in exchange for political allegiance.

But state-owned PDVSA has struggled to keep production up. Rather than using its earnings to develop more fields, much of its earnings have been diverted for political and social projects. Chavez also purged PDVSA of thousands of experienced workers, leaving the company short of well-trained staff.

Chavez could paper over the decay of PDVSA’s production base because oil prices were so high in his…

View original post 556 more words

INDIA: OFFICIALS ON DEFENSIVE AT ‘WATCH LIST’ DESIGNATION


U.S. religious rights panel cites culture of impunity at authorities allowing atrocities.

NEW DELHI, August 18 (Compass Direct News) – Ahead of one-year remembrances of massive anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its “Watch List” for the country’s violations of religious freedom, evoking strong reactions from the Indian government.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a statement on Wednesday (Aug. 12) that it was “extremely disappointing” that India “has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege.”

The U.S. panel’s decision was “regrettable,” a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash, said in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 13), after the USCIRF put India on the list due to a “disturbing increase” in violence on minorities and a growing culture of impunity in the country.

Violence erupted in Kandhamal district of the eastern state of Orissa in August-September 2008, killing more than 100 people and burning 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, according to rights groups such as the All India Christian Council (AICC), the Global Council of India Christians (GCIC) and the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” Leo said. “More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable.”

Disagreeing with the USCIRF report, the foreign ministry’s Prakash said India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. “The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” he said.

Christians were shocked by the foreign ministry spokesman’s claim that “aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”

Attorney Robin Ratnakar David, president of the CLA, told Compass that one year after the violence only six people have been convicted in just two cases of rioting, while several suspects have been acquitted in four such cases despite the formation of fast-track courts.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, pointed out that the more than 50,000 people who fled to forests or took shelter in refugee camps have not returned home out of fear of Hindu nationalist extremists who demand they either convert to Hinduism or leave their villages.

He said there also had been several “pogroms against Muslims, often sponsored or condoned by the state.”

In 2002, India’s worst-ever anti-Muslim violence occurred in the western state of Gujarat. A compartment of a train, the Sabarmati Express, caught fire – or was set on fire (as claimed by Hindu extremists) – near the Godhra city railway station on Feb. 27. In the fire, 58 Hindu passengers, mainly supporters of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), were killed. The VHP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed it was an attack by Islamic terrorists; the ensuing violence killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Following the anti-Muslim violence, the USCIRF recommended that India be designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC), its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. India was removed from the CPC list in 2005.

Designation on the Watch List means a country requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government,” according to USCIRF. The other countries on USCIRF’s Watch List are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

CLA attorney David said the August-September 2008 violence in Kandhamal could have been prevented had the administration brought to justice those responsible for previous mayhem in December 2007. The December 2007 violence in Kandhamal killed at least four Christians, burned as many as 730 houses and 95 churches and rendered thousands homeless.

The attacks were launched under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on a VHP leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was the assassination of Saraswati by Maoists (extreme Marxists) on Aug. 23, 2008 that sparked the second spate of violence in Kandhamal, as Hindu nationalists blamed non-Marxist, local Christians for it.

Dayal said the USCIRF’s latest conclusions could have been avoided if more action had been taken against the perpetrators of last year’s violence.

“The USCRIF action would not have been possible, and India would have been able to rebuff the U.S. scrutiny more effectively, if several thousand Christians were still not in refugee camps, if the killers were still not roaming scot-free and if witnesses, including widows, were not being coerced,” he said.

‘Indifferent’

Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told a private news channel that India did not need approbation from outside its borders.

“As far as we are concerned, we are essentially indifferent to how others view the situation,” he said. “In democracy, what matters to us is how we deal with our own internal issues. I don’t think we need any certificates from outside.”

He dismissed the report as meddling in internal affairs even though between June 2002 and February 2007 Tharoor served as under-secretary general for communications and public information for the United Nations, a body representative of international accountability in human rights.

In its annual report, India’s home (interior) ministry had acknowledged that the incidence of communal violence was high. It noted that in 2008, as many as 943 communal incidents (mainly against Muslims and Christians) took place in which 167 persons were killed and 2,354 persons were injured. The figures were up from those of 2007, when there were 761 incidents in which 99 persons were killed and 2,227 persons were injured.

Justifying its decision, the USCIRF report stated that several incidents of communal violence have occurred in various parts of the country resulting in many deaths and mass displacements, particularly of members of the Christian and Muslim minorities, “including major incidents against Christian communities within the 2008-2009 reporting period.”

“Because the government’s response at the state and local levels has been found to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states, the Commission decided to place India on its Watch List.”

The USCIRF had released its 2009 annual report on religious freedom across the globe on May 1 but put the India report on hold, planning to prepare it after a visit to the country in June. A USCIRF team planned to visit India to speak to the government and others concerning the situation in Kandhamal and Gujarat on June 12, but the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. did not provide visas in time.

“USCIRF’s India chapter was released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa,” Leo pointed out in last week’s statement.

‘Teflon-Coated State’

The AICC’s Dayal seemed pessimistic about a change in the government’s attitude.

“Unfortunately, nothing really impacts the government of India or the government of Indian states,” he said. “The state, and our social conscience, seems Teflon-coated. The patriotic media and political sector dismiss international scrutiny as interference in the internal affairs of India, and a beaten-into-submission section of the leadership of religious minorities assumes silence to be the best form of security and safety.”

Dr. Sajan George, the national convenor of the GCIC, said the report showed that India had become a “super violator” of human rights. The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the U.S. panel’s report did not augur well with India’s claim to find a respectable place within the community of nations.

“India as an emerging economic power in the world should also endeavor to better its records of protecting human rights, particularly when it comes to religious freedom of its citizens,” Joseph said.

Joseph told Compass the USCIRF report was “a clear indication of the growing concern of the international community with India’s repeated failure to take decisive and corrective measures to contain religious intolerance.”

Christian leaders generally lauded the report, with Dayal saying, “India’s record on the persecution of minorities and the violation of religious freedom has been a matter of international shame for the nation.”

Report from Compass Direct News 

COLOMBIA: LEFTIST GUERRILLAS THREATEN, KILL CHRISTIANS


Pastors are issued warnings in north; evangelists murdered in southwest.

LOS ANGELES, March 18 (Compass Direct News) – Having been sentenced to die by leftist rebels for holding Christian worship services in 2006, a pastor in Colombia’s northern department of Arauca took seriously the death threats that guerrillas issued on Friday (March 13), according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) phoned a pastor of Ebenezer Church in Saravena at 5:30 a.m., telling him to meet them at a site on the Arauca River at 7 a.m. When the pastor, who requested anonymity, arrived at the landing, the guerrillas took him by canoe to the other side of the river – into Venezuela – then drove him to a guerrilla camp some 40 minutes away.

For the next three hours, the rebels warned him that area pastors have three options: cooperate with the revolutionary cause of the guerrillas, leave or die.

They warned him that pastors must not preach to ELN guerrillas – the Christian message of peace contradicts their military objectives – and could not support Christian political candidates without their permission.

“We do not want pastors and those attending their churches to participate in politics,” they told the pastor. “We do not want evangelicals in politics, because you do not support our ideals. We have nothing in common with evangelicals.”

The guerrillas said the ELN does not object to pastors preaching within church walls, but that the congregation must not talk of politics, war or peace. Before letting him go, they told him that the ELN will show no compassion on church members if they continue to disobey those directives.

Such threats were not new to the pastor. In 2006, Open Doors sources said, he and his family had to leave behind the church he pastored in Fortul village and much of their belongings after guerrillas threatened to kill him for preaching and leading Christian services in both a home and a worship building.

ELN forces took control of the area in 2007 and quickly declared Christian worship illegal; by January 2008, the guerrillas had closed seven churches and prohibited preaching of Christ in rural areas.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008, the Human Rights Unit of Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating killings in past years of 14 clergy members believed to have been targeted because they were outspoken critics of terrorist organizations. The Presidential Program for Human Rights reported that nearly all killings of priests by terrorist groups could be attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC.

“Catholic and Protestant church leaders noted that killings of religious leaders in rural communities were generally underreported because of the communities’ isolation and fear of retribution,” the state department report notes. “Religious leaders generally chose not to seek government protection because of their pacifist beliefs and fear of retribution from terrorist groups.”

A human rights organization affiliated with the Mennonite church, Justicia, Paz y Acción No-violenta (Justapaz), asserted that guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and new criminal groups equally committed violence against evangelical church leaders, according to the state department report.

Leftist rebels opposed to Christian peace teachings continue to issue threats of violence against pastors and Christian leaders in various parts of Arauca department. On Feb. 28, ELN guerrillas took the pastor of another church to a guerrilla camp in Venezuela. Upset that pastors were taking advantage of the presence of the Colombian army to defy the guerrillas – publicly preaching Christ and using their pulpits for preaching peace – the rebels accused Christians of not helping with social projects.

“Preach inside churches, but do not let them die – worry how to save those that are with you,” one guerrilla told the pastor, who requested anonymity. “We will have to take drastic measures with pastors so they obey again.”

The pastor first had contact with rebels 12 years ago, when Marxist members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held him for several days.

In Puerto Jordán, a municipality of Arauquita, last Dec. 9 presumed leftist rebels gave 40-year-old pastor Rodolfo Almeida eight days to leave. Open Doors reported that a young man came to his house at 8:30 at night and asked for his wife. Surprised that stranger would ask for her at that hour, Almeida asked why he wanted to see her. The young man then told him that he had eight days to leave town or his life would be threatened.

The stranger refused to tell Almeida what organization he was with. He only reminded him that he had been warned. The pastor had received similar threats from ELN rebels in 2007, and by the end of 2008 he and his wife decided to leave with their three children. Almeida had served for more than two years as co-pastor of Ebenezer Church in Arauquita.

Two unnamed Christian mayors in Arauca have also come under threat from the guerrillas, and on Feb. 15 a councilman was killed. Since they took office in January 2008, the mayors of Arauquita and Saravena have been attacked by ELN rebels several times, according to Open Doors. They have drawn the ire of the guerrillas because they cannot be bought as their predecessors were, and they refuse to engage in the rebels’ illegal activities.

“In our lives we have lost the privileges of an ordinary person,” the mayor of Arauquita told Open Doors. “Now we are military targets. God brought me here, but sometimes I have wished not to continue, because being a Christian in a context like this where we live has a very high price.”

Last year, he added, guerrillas killed seven Christians in Arauca department. “Some of them were public officials, others were leaders or simply people recognized by their testimony as believers in Christ,” he said.

Open Doors reported that Councilman Francisco Delgadillo, a Christian who had received threats from the ELN guerrillas, was killed as he returned to his home on Feb. 15.

 

FARC Territory

Across the river, Venezuela serves as a safe haven for the ELN, which the U.S. Department of State has designated as a terrorist group. With the approval of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the guerrilla forces use the country as a base from which to move into Colombia’s oil-rich Arauca department.

Although the ELN has been at odds with the Marxist FARC, in Arauca the two rebel groups co-exist without conflict; from their bases in Venezuela, according to Open Doors, the two groups amicably share paths and roads.

FARC guerrillas control the southwestern department of Huila, where last November four Christians were killed. Open Doors reported that all four belonged to the Alianza Cristiana church of Santana Ramos. Farley Cortés was killed on Nov. 5 in Plumeros village, Hermes Coronado Granado was killed on Nov. 8 in Santana Ramos, and 10 days later a married couple, Dora Lilia Saavedra and Ferney Ledezma, were also killed there.

Guerrillas seized Saavedra, 40, and the 35-year-old Ledezma from the school where Saavedra taught on Nov. 18, bound them on the floor of an old house and shot them several times. The FARC guerrillas had taken their three children, ages 3, 5 and 12, along with them and made them wait at a nearby house within hearing of the shots. The couple, married for five years, were known for proclaiming Christ in the village that borders the farm they owned.

Their pastor, Hernan Camacho, has moved with his family out of the area after receiving death threats.

The FARC accuses the families of Camacho, his brothers and Saavedra of refusing to follow its ideology, Pastor Camacho told Open Doors. “[The guerrillas] say that we, the evangelical ones, are their worst enemy because we teach the people not to take up weapons,” he said. “They accuse us of lulling the minds not to claim our rights against the government … the guerrillas say that it is our fault that the people prefer to continue with the church and not to join them.”

Motives for the killings are still under investigation, but Open Doors reported that Huila is in a zone historically known for systematic persecution of the church by guerrillas. In July 2007, pastor Jael Cruz García, 27, and another pastor, 63-year-old Humberto Méndez Montoya, were murdered in the village of La Legiosa in northern Huila. In 2002, two other pastors, Abelardo Londoño and Yesid Ruíz, were shot and killed in the same area.

Having lost three key leaders last year and been pushed out of most major urban centers by government forces, the FARC has embarked on a terror campaign to make its presence known in cities, according to The Christian Science Monitor. In the Huila capital of Neiva, on March 6 a bomb explosion damaged a hardware store and nearby businesses, according to the newspaper, and on Jan. 16 suspected FARC rebels were responsible for a car explosion at a shopping mall.

Report from Compass Direct News

ECUADOR: DEATH THREATS, DAMAGES HIT CHURCHES


Backlash erupts against Christian opponents of proposed constitution.

QUITO, Ecuador, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Catholic authorities report death threats and several acts of vandalism of church property in response to church opposition to several articles in Ecuador’s proposed new constitution.

In the port city of Guayaquil, a group of people were reported to have entered a chapel, grabbed the eucharistic host, tore it apart, spat on it and stepped on it.

That vandalism was reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks as frustrated supporters of ruling socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. Similar desecrations were reported in recent weeks at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Nobol and the Church of the Holy Supper in Guayaquil.

Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil has received numerous death threats, as has pro-life leader Amparo Medina, who recently received a dead rat inside of a shoebox with a note attached that read “death to pro-lifers.” In addition, the president of the Never Impunity Movement (Movimiento Impunidad Jamás) has called for the archbishop’s arrest and “preventative imprisonment” because of the church’s opposition to the constitution.

María Morán Bajaña, the movement’s president, said that the church’s campaign was a step back in time and was an improper role for church leadership.

The Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference said that the church would not officially campaign against the document but would alert the Ecuadorian people to several provisions that it called “non-negotiable.”

In particular, church officials have said that they disagreed with provisions that could allow for abortions and homosexual unions as well as the concentration of power in the president’s hands.

The national assembly that debated the new document’s 444 articles had wrestled with those topics for weeks, weighing possible outcomes if the church decided to openly oppose it and call for a “no” vote in the referendum. Pro-life groups had demonstrated in front of the assembly hall as the issue was debated.

The church chose, however, not to officially campaign against the constitution but to raise its concern about some of the articles, as well as call for education in churches about the controversial issues. Nearly 90 percent of Ecuadorians consider themselves Roman Catholic.

In “themes such as abortion, the family, education and religious liberty, the bishops of Ecuador decided to discuss those points in the light of pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI,” said Archbishop Arregui, president of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.

Arregui criticized the draft document, saying the language on abortion is ambiguous. He said that the new constitution did not clearly define life as beginning at conception nor denote family as consisting of a man and a woman, but rather allowed for non-traditional family types.

“A union between homosexuals is not a family,” Arregui argued.

 

Religious Freedom

Protestant leaders have also lined up in opposition to some of the document’s provisions.

Pastors Francisco Loor and Nelson Zavala have charged that at least 200 of the constitution’s articles are “immoral.” They also challenged President Rafael Correa’s description of church opposition as antiquated.

Government officials, including Correa, have sharply criticized church leaders for their position and accused unnamed priests of disseminating erroneous information in sermons about the documents.

“This is a constitution that defends life,” Correa said. “The text is clear. The rest is simply ignorance or bad faith to keep on playing the games of those groups who want power.”

Augusto Barrera, coordinator between the Executive and the Constituent Assembly, said, “It is not true that the constitution favors abortion. It undoubtedly and clearly protects life and establishes protection and care from the very beginning, that is, conception.”

He also accused the church of being linked to opposition organizations that opposed Correa and his friendship with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Correa also has questioned the church’s position concerning religious liberty in the document.

“The new constitution recognizes a person’s right to practice, keep, change or profess his religion in public or in private and to share it with others,” he said.

Arregui said the church is concerned about freedom of religion and the right of the church to operate freely.

“We will not enter into a discussion with the president nor limit our right of free expression, including the expression of our religious beliefs,” he said. “We will work to influence the Christian conscience about these issues. Each citizen is free to make his own conclusions about how they ought to vote.”

 

Indigenous Deity

In addition, the mention of an indigenous deity, Paccha Mama, in the proposed constitution has contributed to the rift between Ecuador’s president and Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders.

“We are worried that this invocation of an Incan deity, the Paccha Mama [Mother Earth], a divine being, among the indigenous groups is a worship of Paccha Mama,” said Pastor Loor, who leads an Assemblies of God church in the port city of Guayaquil.

“To include it in the constitution is to return to a time hundreds of years ago when fire and air were worshipped.”

In addition, Pastor Loor charged that the inclusion of Paccha Mama contradicted the new document’s reported secular nature.

The new constitution, which was approved by an elected assembly in late July and will be voted on in a national referendum on September 28, notes in its preface, “We, the sovereign people of Ecuador, celebrate nature, the Paccha Mama, that we are a part of and that is a vital part of our existence.” The document’s chapter on the rights of nature says, “The existence of nature, or Paccha Mama, where we reproduce life, has the right to be respected.”

Carlos Pilaminga, one of the representatives to the constitutional assembly of the indigenous political party Pachakutik, charged that Protestants and Roman Catholics do not understand the “indigenous vision of the cosmos.” Paccha Mama, he said, is not a deity but “is an eternal space where we live and of which we are a part. Pachakamak is our creator, what the Catholics call God and the evangelicals [Protestants] call Jehovah.”

“Our evangelical brothers do not comprehend our religiosity and spirituality,” Pilaminga added.

The constitution has been controversial in Ecuador and internationally because it is seen as consolidating the president’s power over various branches of government, including the banking system and the courts. The document also allows Correa to run for additional terms.

Recent polls have indicated that the constitution is growing in favor but still has not gained enough support to be approved. Ratification would need 50 percent-plus-one vote of those participating in the referendum.

Report from Compass Direct News