Venezuela's Birthers May Be Right, but That Doesn't Mean They're Helping the Opposition Out

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has a lot on his plate these days. He faces a full-fledged economic crisis, with growth slowing and inflation sharply rising. Experts are forecasting that the looming slowdown in China could well cause a drop in oil prices, which would also spell doom for his Socialist Revolution. It's also becoming increasingly clear that Nicolás Maduro is no Hugo Chávez. Ever since winning a contested election last April, his legitimacy has been called into question.

On top of all that, Maduro now also has to deal with a nascent "birther" movement. Even since before the election, fringe elements inside the opposition have argued that Maduro was actually born in Colombia, thereby making him ineligible to hold the country's highest office.

Maduro has responded by asserting he was born in the Los Chuagarmos district of Caracas. The foreign minister said he was born in El Valle. Adding to that, but not really helping, is the governor of Táchira state, hundreds of kilometers west of Caracas and bordering Colombia, who says that he was born there. Fueling the controversy is the fact that Maduro's official Venezuelan birth certificate has never been produced.

The scandal hit fever pitch in the last few days when Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, presented what he claimed was Maduro's Colombian birth certificate. The Colombian Civil Registry has denied the document's authenticity, but this has done little to dispel the doubts.

Skeptics even question the nationality of Maduro's parents. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if Maduro had been born in Colombia he would still be Venezuelan as long as one of his parents was Venezuelan and he had taken up residence in Venezuela. However, even in that case, Maduro would have two nationalities (Colombian and Venezuelan), and would therefore be ineligible for the Presidency.

The "birther" movement would have probably remained a mere curiosity were it not for the fact that, a few days ago, opposition leader Henrique Capriles tacitly joined their ranks. "Where were you born, Nicolás?" Capriles asked during a press conference. "Venezuelans have their doubts. Are you going to lie? Show your birth certificate."

Even if Maduro had been born in Colombia, this would not matter much. With the state's institutions firmly in his hand, there is absolutely no chance that Venezuela's courts would question his election, let alone overturn it. If one judges it by its stated goal of repealing Maduro's presidency, the "birther" movement is at a dead end.

However, as a long-term political strategy, it just might work.

Ever since claiming Maduro and the chavistas stole last April's election, the opposition has focused on framing the government elite as a gang of liars and crooks. They constantly talk about how the government lied about Hugo Chávez's health, about the frail state of the economy, and about the extent of Cuba's influence on the Venezuelan government.

Birthers play right into this strategy. By casting doubts about Maduro's place of birth, they call his honesty into question. Given the fact that many Venezuelans still don't know Maduro very well, this could be harmful for the President.

The strategy of questioning his honesty seems to be working. According to pro-government pollster IVAD, only 45 percent of Venezuelans believe Maduro actually won the election and 65 pervent of Venezuelans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. If the election were held today, Capriles would beat Maduro by six points. Four other polls show similar results.

However, the government could swiftly put birthers in their place by producing Maduro's birth certificate. Just like their counterparts in the United States, calling into question someone's place of birth can backfire quickly. The people engaged in gossip-mongering could end up coming across as petty, or worse.

Regardless of the outcome, the opposition should focus on other, more pressing issues. The government has recently impeached a member of the National Assembly in clear violation of the Constitution. It has threatened to do the same to popular opposition leader Maria Corina Machado. It has also made alarming moves against the written press, by freezing the bank accounts of the owner of Venezuela's most prestigious newspaper.

It remains to be seen whether the "birther" accusation remains an interesting footnote in Venezuela's complicated political chess game, or whether it will have any relevance in the medium term.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and the co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.


The Deepening Crisis in Libya

As dusk was falling on Sunday, the city of Benghazi was rocked by two huge explosions. Bombings have become depressingly frequent in Libya's second-largest city over the past year. But they're not the only form of violence plaguing Benghazi, either. There have been 57 assassinations since the end of the war that toppled Qaddafi's regime. 


The explosions come two days after the assassination of prominent lawyer and activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari, who was shot as he left one of Benghazi's mosques after Friday prayers. Mesmari, who was credited with playing a prominent role in Libya's revolution, was also an outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists. 

More recently, Mesmari was involved in the organization of a planned demonstration over the investigation into the 2011 killing of General Abdul Fatah Younis, a leading commander in the war against Qaddafi. Islamist extremists are suspected to have been behind his killing. 

As if all this weren't enough, more than 1,000 prisoners staged a jailbreak from one of Benghazi's main prisons on Saturday. Many of those who got away were Qaddafi loyalists and extremists; predictably there has been much talk of a conspiracy, but the circumstances remain unclear. Officials are exploring the possibility of a link between the jailbreak and the two explosions in Benghazi. Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's interim legislature, made a short speech to the nation on Sunday night in which he accused Qaddafi loyalists of trying to destabilize the country. 

Many Libyans suspect, however, that it is the Islamists who are behind the killing of Mesmari and others like him. Extremists are exploiting the security vacuum in the country, and are doing their best to deepen it by targeting the security infrastructure. (Professional army officers are among the most frequent targets.) 

Political polarization is reaching alarming levels. The authorities in Tripoli are incapable of bringing the security situation under control. No one has been brought to justice for the Benghazi assassinations, and no arrests have been made in connection with the bombings in Benghazi and Tripoli. The authorities have registered the cases against "unknown assailants," a category of people that seem to be able to attack at any time and place with complete impunity. 

As a result, Libyans are becoming increasingly suspicious of political parties, whom they suspect of maintaining their own armed wings to influence the political situation. These suspicions were affirmed by various exchanges on Libyan channels between GNC members from the National Forces Alliance and Islamist members. Hours after Mesmari was shot, angry mobs attacked the headquarters of political parties in different Libyan cities and towns, in some cases setting them on fire. The Islamist parties were particularly hard hit. The Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Benghazi was ransacked and looted; popular sentiment against the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya seems to be rising exponentially these days. (The backlash against the Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt may have something to do with it.) Some are calling for the movement to be dissolved completely. 

The situation is becoming unsustainable for the government and the GNC. Public anger is mounting by the day, and there are growing calls to sack the government and dissolve the GNC. This would be a dangerous path for Libya to take, because there is no clear alternative to filling the vacuum that would ensue. However, there are calls to amend the Constitutional Declaration, the country's transitional roadmap, and to agree upon a new framework for the country's transition. Judging from the rapid deterioration of the situation in Libya, the GNC will need to take some drastic measures and make changes in order to defuse the mounting public anger and tension on the streets. The government has been unable to reign in militias, while militias have shown unwillingness to lay down their weapons and join the army and police forces. 

GNC president, Abusahmain authorized the "revolutionaries" militias that have besieged government ministries and blackmailed GNC into passing the controversial isolation law to "protect" Tripoli in light of the deteriorating situation in Benghazi. These very same militias threatened to overthrow government and GNC if the law was not passed. In his address to the nation, Abusahmain warned against an armed coup against the legitimate democratic institutions. However, it is not clear who is leading the coup against whom, because pro-February 17 revolution groups own most of the weapons in Libya. 

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced in a press conference on Sunday an imminent reshuffle of his government. He hinted that he is contemplating the formation of a crisis government in order to stabilize the situation in the country. But some Libyans are discussing an alternative scenario in which Zeidan would resign, paving the way for a new prime minister to head the new government. The formation of a crisis government has been a key demand of the Zintan tribal conference that took earlier this month. 

The gap of mistrust among the various power brokers is widening. The Islamists, and their sympathizers in the important city of Misrata, view any calls for dissolution of the GNC as an attempt to repeat the Egyptian scenario, in which the Islamists are removed from the political scene with support from a majority of the Libyan people. Meanwhile, the powerful tribes in the east and south of the country, as well as the somewhat more secular leadership of the city of Zintan, view any attempts to prolong the life of the GNC in its current form as part of a gradual Islamization of the state. The Zintanis and the tribal groups worry that the Islamists are consolidating their grip on the state's institutions, especially after the passing of the controversial political isolation law that excludes many of the Islamists' opponents from positions of power. 

The only realistic way out of the current crisis is to launch a genuine process of national dialogue, one that is inclusive and transparent. There were calls for such an effort immediately after the revolution two years ago, but it never happened. The lack of national dialogue in Libya is feeding into the intensifying dynamic of mutual mistrust. Eventually Libyans will have to realize that it is only through compassion, justice, and inclusion that we can build the country we aspire to live in, a Libya that is built by all and for all. I pray that Libyans come to this realization sooner rather than later. 

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here