Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Picture: HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Caracas — It took a single day for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to make his authoritarian intentions clear. About 24 hours after Maduro announced the formation of an assembly that would shoulder aside democratic institutions, security forces hustled away the highest profile opposition figures from their homes. The crackdown drew international condemnation, shook bond markets and conjured up memories of the continent’s earlier era of repressive and deadly politics.

"The imprisonment of two of the most important dissidents of President Maduro’s government is further proof of the lack of respect for individual liberties and the due process of law, essential pillars of a democratic regime," according to a statement from the office of Brazil’s foreign minister, Aloysio Nunes Ferreira.

For months, Maduro has been facing not only violent street protests but the possibility of economic punishment by the US, the largest purchaser of its oil. On Monday, the Trump administration punished the socialist president by freezing any assets he has in the US, and US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin branded him a dictator out to kill a six-decade democracy. On Tuesday, Maduro’s regime re-arrested opposition leader Leopoldo López, whose wife visited the White House in February to ask President Donald Trump’s help free him.

López was taken from his home at gunpoint, Lilian Tintori said, just weeks after he had been transferred to house arrest after three years in a military prison. Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma was also taken, according to his wife.

López has become a symbol for rights groups and foreign governments, who’ve said his detention was clear evidence that Maduro would trample basic rights. As Venezuelans suffer food shortages and violence escalates, Maduro is seeking to rewrite the constitution after a Sunday vote to choose members of a so-called constituent assembly that the opposition and many foreign governments refuse to recognise.

One of Maduro’s top allies and leader of the ruling socialist party, mayor of the Libertador municipality in Caracas Jorge Rodriguez said on Tuesday that the assembly would convene in the coming hours. He didn’t say when or where.

Dictatorships’ spectre

The arrests brought back bitter memories of Latin American nations ruled for decades by repressive governments of the left and right. Raúl Castro continues his brother Fidel’s domination of Cuba. Brazil was governed by a succession of generals, with democracy re-emerging only in 1985. In 1973, Chileans elected socialist Salvador Allende, only to see him toppled by a US-backed coup. In Argentina’s "dirty war" that lasted until 1983, thousands of dissidents disappeared at the hands of the military regime, some thrown into the ocean from planes.

Now, for months, Venezuela’s government has held hundreds of political prisoners, with some arbitrarily detained and others prosecuted in the military justice system. Human rights advocates say some have faced torture. "Maduro is sending a frightening message to all the people in Venezuela: dissent will not be tolerated in any form," Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Ledezma was sent to Ramo Verde prison, according to his wife, Mitzy Capriles. A video shows him being taken out of his building in his pajamas. "Maduro is a dictator," Capriles said at a news conference in Madrid.

Tintori released security-camera footage that appeared to show security forces putting López into a car marked with the emblem of the intelligence police. Juan Carlos Gutierrez, López’s lawyer, said in a radio interview that López was taken to Ramo Verde.

In a statement on Tuesday evening, Trump called López and Ledezma "political prisoners" who are being held illegally, and said the US holds Maduro "personally responsible" for the pair’s health and safety. "We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners".

The US is "evaluating all our policy options as to what we can do to create a change of conditions, where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord, or we can return the government processes back to their constitution," US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said to reporters in Washington earlier on Tuesday.

Unlimited power

The 545-member constituent assembly, expected to be dominated by Maduro and his ally, strongman Diosdado Cabello, will meet as soon as this week to discuss changing the charter already rewritten under former leader Hugo Chávez. The body will supersede the national assembly, which is dominated by the opposition.

On Tuesday, the streets of Caracas bustled as usual, with businesses open and public transport running, but tremors radiated through markets. Bets on a Venezuelan default are climbing and the implied probability of a missed payment over the next year has risen to 64%, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The government’s $3bn of bonds due in 2022 fell to a 15-month low and traded at 41c on Tuesday.

Despite its oil wealth, years of economic mismanagement have beggared Venezuela. With international reserves near a 15-year low of only $10bn, the country is facing foreign debt payments totaling $4.8bn in the remainder of the year. Of that, $1.6bn is due in October and another $1.9bn in November.

The unaccustomed poverty in a formerly prosperous petrostate set off unrest that has brought soldiers into the streets and forced residents to stockpile food and water.

Opinion polls show the Venezuelan people are strongly opposed to Maduro’s plan. Protesters have been confronting security forces since April in clashes that have led to more than 110 deaths. A mass march against the regime is scheduled for Wednesday.


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