Opinion Piece

OPINION: Mr. Maduro, it's time to live up to your name

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Without getting into the legal technicalities of the case, or the forensics (if there are any), the nearly 14-year sentence (13 years, nine months, seven days and 12 hours to be precise) handed down to Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López for his alleged role in inciting violent anti-government protests in February 2014, in which over 40 people died, was out of all proportion to the offenses.

What is more, by any stretch of the imagination, the trial was far from fair. The closed-door proceedings conducted by a highly politicized judiciary that is firmly in the hands of the government, the lack of defense witnesses (138 witnesses for the prosecution but only one for the defense), and the lack of contact between López and his legal team in the run-up to the trial (he was held in solitary confinement for most of the 19 months he'd spent in a military jail prior to the trial), make a mockery of justice.

It is to be hoped, although it's a forlorn one, that the sentence is reduced significantly in the appeal process. The government of Nicolás Maduro has never forgiven López for his alleged role in the 2002 coup attempt against the president's predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez. But Venezuelan society is far too polarized as it is, and the time has come for Maduro to show the maturity (his name means 'mature' in Spanish) fitting of a responsible leader and take this opportunity to reach out to the opposition and grant López a pardon, just as former president Rafael Caldera did to 'Comandante' Chávez over his role in a 1992 coup attempt, or as Chávez himself did with the 2002 coup plotters by granting most of them an amnesty.  

Of course, there is even less chance of that happening than of an appeal slashing López's sentence or even overturning the ruling. Unfortunately, Maduro seems set on a course that involves jailing opposition figures and gagging dissenting voices, while the economy is mired in an ever-deeper crisis amid rampant inflation, shortages of basic goods and the collapse of the oil price (crude accounts for over 90% of export revenue and nearly 50% of fiscal income). It's a recipe for disaster.

Maduro has another big test of his willingness to respect democratic choice and the rule of law on December 6, when Venezuelans go the polls to elect a new legislature. The signs are not all good. The government, for instance, is refusing to allow observers from the Organization of American States to monitor the process (describing them as electoral tourists). Independent opinion polls are hard to come by in Venezuela, but all indications are that the opposition MUD movement is expected to do well, and probably win, providing the polls are fair. If the Maduro government tries to manipulate the elections in the same way it appears to have manipulated the López trial, the fate of democracy in Venezuela will be in the balance.   

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