The Cable

State Department Balks at Venezuela’s Proposed Prisoner Release

The State Department balked at an unusual new proposal by embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to broker the release of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech during celebrations for the Students' Day, in front of the Miraflores presidential palace, in Caracas, on November 21, 2014. AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO (Photo credit should read JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

On Monday, the State Department balked at an unusual new proposal by embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to broker the release of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

In a televised address on Sunday, Maduro said he would only release Lopez if the United States released Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera, a man convicted in 1981 of seditious conspiracy for his efforts to win Puerto Rican independence. In a statement to Foreign Policy, a State Department spokesperson sharply criticized Maduro’s proposal and said his offer raises further questions about Maduro’s arbitrary use of Venezuela’s court system.

“There is no comparison between these cases,” said the spokesperson. “Maduro’s comments underscore long-standing concerns about the independence of the judiciary in Venezuela, the lack of due process, and the use of the judicial system to silence opposition voices.”

The spokesperson referred other questions about Rivera to the Justice Department, which did not immediately respond.

The Obama administration has called on Venezuela to release Lopez ever since he was arrested in February for engineering demonstrations demanding Maduro’s resignation, or as Caracas called it, plotting a coup. Faced with rising domestic unrest and collapsing poll numbers, Maduro has also lashed out recently at other top opposition figures; in November, he jailed parliamentary deputy Maria Corina Machado and charged her with a conspiracy to assassinate him.

It’s unclear if Maduro’s offer to Washington is genuine or a theatrical distraction. After replacing Hugo Chavez following his death in 2013, the president has increasingly looked to foreign disputes and conspiracy theories to tamp down dissent at home. (This includes attributing power outages and oil refinery explosions to sabotage rather than sorely outdated infrastructure.) A State Department spokesperson pointedly noted that news of the proposed prisoner swap only appeared “in the press rather than through diplomatic channels,” suggesting that Maduro floated the deal for domestic consumption.

What is clear is that Venezuela’s economy is increasingly in trouble. Since June, oil prices have dropped by half. That’s horrible news for a country that earns most of its foreign currency from the export of oil. As a result, Maduro has launched an international cap-in-hand tour this week to help prop up the government’s barren coffers.

His first visit is to China for discussions with President Xi Jinping. He’ll later visit a number of OPEC countries and Russia, where he will renew Venezuelan pleas for big oil-producers to cut back oil production and prop up crude prices. But OPEC states and Russia are all reeling to different degrees from economic impact of falling oil prices, and have little aid to offer. What’s more, neither OPEC heavyweights nor Russia has yet been willing to cry uncle and reduce oil output.

In a statement later on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki renewed her calls for Lopez’s release. “We’ve repeatedly called for the release of all political prisoners, a call that has been echoed by many international and multinational entities,” she said. “Yet President Maduro proposes exiling opposition figures rather than having a discussion about the real concerns and problems facing Venezuela.”

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