VIO News Blog

December 8, 2008

Venezuelan Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of President Chavez

Saturday marked ten years since President Chavez was first elected. AFP reports that Chavez spoke before thousands of supporters (pictured at right), and said that a referendum on  presidential term limits will come from the National Assembly. Support is needed from 30 percent of lawmakers in order to hold a vote. Chavez said the measure would give Venezuelans the chance “to successfully complete… the revolutionary process that now has profound ideological content: Bolivarian socialism.” Meanwhile, according to AFP, the political opposition is determined to derail the referendum. Julio Borges of Primero Justicia said: “We are preparing to fight on all fronts — in the courts and in the streets.”

In a similar report, the Washington Post claims that Chavez has tried to “build an anti-Washington alliance,” when in fact the Venezuelan leader has specifically opposed Bush policies of U.S. unilateralism and unbridled free trade. Chavez recently congratulated Obama on his electoral victory and has repeatedly expressed a desire for dialogue and better relations with the U.S. Still, the Post reports that a vote on presidential term limits in Venezuela means a “challenge” for Obama. It also cites, despite a lack of evidence, Venezuela’s alleged support for Colombian guerrillas. President Chavez helped free six captives from the FARC this year. AFP reports that one former hostage, Igrid Betancourt, is currently visiting Venezuela to show thanks and ask for more assistance.

Reuters reported Friday on cabinet changes in Venezuela that put two PSUV candidates who lost in recent regional elections back into the executive branch. Diosdado Cabello, the former governor of Miranda, was appointed infrastructure minister. Jesse Chacon, who lost in the Caracas race for municipal mayor, will replace Andres Izarra as information minister. The Miami Herald’s Spanish-language paper, El Nuevo Herald, airs allegations that pro-Chavez candidates sought to “buy votes” in regional elections — even where they lost. The claims come from opposition politicians of the formerly government-aligned political party Patria Para Todos (PPT). One interviewee says that in the past it was “customary” in Venezuela to offer services and goods in exchange for votes.

On the economy, inflation has fallen for a second straight month in Venezuela. Bloomberg reports that reduced rates of consumption are likely the cause. Overall, consumer prices have risen 27.6% so far in 2008. The AP reports that inflation also went down in Caracas, though it is currently at 32.7%.

Venezuela performed well in a recent Gallup/Inter-American Development Bank poll that ranks citizen satisfaction across different areas of the economy, society, and politics. On a scale of one to ten, where ten is the most satisfied, Venezuelans gave an average of 6.5, making the country the fourth-happiest in Latin America. Among Venezuelan respondents, 90.6% said they were satisfied with their employment situation (the 3rd highest rate in Latin America, and 84% were satisfied with the country’s public education system (2nd highest). The results are published in Venezuelanalysis. A Miami Herald column, meanwhile, takes high rates of satisfaction with public education throughout Latin America as evidence that millions in the region are simply “in denial.” This condescending view sees only “educational backwardness,” and ignores progress made in recent years.

Finally, a letter in the Miami Herald urges a greater focus on Latin America in U.S. foreign policy. It advocates a hemispheric free trade agreement, an initiative that Bush pressed, but that fell flat after being roundly rejected by other nations. Meanwhile, another op-ed in the Tribune by British MP Colin Burgon reviews the new democratic governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, and highlights their alternative proposals for development.

December 5, 2008

Mayor of Caracas Borough Sworn In

Continuing with coverage on the elections, the AP reports on the barrio of Petare, a traditionally pro-Chavez area which is part of a Caracas district that elected an opposition mayor in last month’s elections. The mayor, Carlos Ocariz, was sworn in yesterday. The article points to crime, trash collection, and public services as reasons why Petare went to the opposition. The AP downplays the fact that the largest, most populous district in Caracas, Libertador, was won by the pro-government PSUV candidate Jorge Rodriguez by over 100,000 votes.

Regarding the continuing slump in oil prices, Bloomberg reports that an analyst at the Eurasia group believes that Chavez may be trying to “rush through a vote” on term limits before the impact of low oil prices affects his popularity. This claim has been made in several other news stories recently. However, other analysts have said that Venezuela is well prepared to weather a world-wide economic crisis that has led to the lower price of oil. The country has over $40 billion in international reserves. The Chavez administration has repeatedly said that it will continue to fund the social missions that have helped millions of poor Venezuelans and contributed to a 35% drop in poverty.

Finally, Mexico’s Cemex is seeking arbitration through the World Bank after rejecting compensation proposed by the Venezuelan government for cement manufacturing assets nationalized earlier this year. The AP wrongly calls the nationalization process a “confiscation,” when in fact laws in Venezuela guarantee compensation to firms. President Chavez said last week that talks with Cemex are ongoing, at that the company can expect less than the value it initially demanded because its plants require investment to meet environmental standards.

December 4, 2008

After Venezuela’s Regional Elections, Buzz Continues

The AP profiles the incoming Caracas metropolitan mayor, Antonio Ledezma, whose win was perhaps the most significant claimed by the opposition in regional elections on November 23rd. Ledezma is praised for his conciliatory tone and “lawyerly demeanor,” while President Chavez is quoted was saying that the opposition may try “to hatch a conspiracy once again.” The last time the city had an opposition mayor was in 2002, when the president endured an aborted coup that was given the seal of approval by U.S. government agencies.

In the wake of regional elections, debates are continuing about the significance of the results. A Miami Herald op-ed today proclaims a victory for the opposition in Venezuela, which earned five out of 22 state governorships. It wrongly states that the disqualification of candidates facing corruption charges was done by Chavez to thwart the opposition. In fact, some pro-Chavez candidates were also barred from running under the legislation, which was created by the National Assembly in 2001.

A second op-ed in Alternet offers some counter-arguments regarding the regional elections by taking a close look at the actual numbers. It points out that 57 percent of Venezuelans will remain under pro-government state leadership. Even in states where opposition candidates took governorships, most local municipalities — even in Zulia — opted for mayors from the government’s PSUV party. A PSUV mayor was elected in the most populous Caracas municipality of Libertador, although the city’s main mayor is opposition. PSUV wins were had in 77 percent of states and 80 percent of municipalities, and they showed larger margins of victory than those seen by the opposition.

In international news, the BBC reports that Russia’s fleet has left Venezuela and moved on to Panama after joint naval operations that lasted only one day. Prime Minister Putin said he does not see a need to build permanent bases in the region, according to the AP. The U.S. maintains several bases, and dozens more anti-drug radar stations, and has just dispatched a naval fleet to the region for the first time in half a century.

Finally, the San Francisco Chronicle considers what U.S. foreign policy in Latin America might look like under the Obama administration. Venezuela and Bolivia are said to remain “hostile nations,” despite the fact that both have repeatedly called for better relations with the U.S. and desire dialogue. The Chronicle concludes that Obama will continue Bush policies including “strong backing for Mexico and Colombia, continuation of the economic blockade of Cuba and a cautious approach toward Castro, Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales.”

December 3, 2008

Manuel Rosales Summoned by Venezuelan Attorney General

Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate who lost to Hugo Chavez in the last presidential elections, has been called to a hearing by Venezuela’s Attorney General. According to the AP and Bloomberg, prosecutors will determine next Thursday whether to file criminal charges against him for the misuse of public funds.

An electoral official in Venezuela has said that a referendum to amend the constitution and end presidential term limits could occur in February, according to the AP. Voters can bring about a referendum through petitioning, as they did in 2004, but fifteen percent (about 2.5 million) will need to sign on. Reuters reports that President Chavez also mentioned the end of February as a possible referendum date. The Electoral Council has 30 days to hold a vote once a petition is complete. The Miami Herald insists that the initiative is a bid by Chavez to become “president-for-life” — an inaccurate statement given that the Venezuelan leader would simply be allowed to compete in future democratic elections, giving voters more candidates from which to choose. The Herald also puts inflation rates in Venezuela at 35 percent, which is about 5 percentage points too high, according to estimates published this month in the Caracas newspaper El Universal.

The BBC reports that Venezuela’s opposition is determined to block a referendum on presidential term limits. They say the initiative was rejected by voters a year ago, when a set of 69 constitutional reforms did not pass. According to a Dow Jones article which quotes only opposition sources, the referendum is being pushed through quickly ahead of an impending economic crash. Many experts, though, do not share Dow Jones’s picture of a “bleak economic outlook” for 2009; Venezuela’s economy has been deemed robust and able to survive lowered oil prices by analysts from CEPR and IDEAGlobal.

In other economic news, the Financial Times reports that private companies including banks have thrived under the administration of President Chavez, giving rise to new business elites. It profiles Wilmer Ruperti, who broke the PDVSA oil sabotage in 2002 and has become one of the so-called “Boligarchs.” The subtext here is that corruption permeates the Chavez administration — a claim also made in the Miami Herald and Christian Science Monitor today. According to one expert, oil booms have always produced new elites, and this “is history repeating itself.”

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor reports on crime in Venezuela and citizen concerns about security despite the fact that “extreme poverty and unemployment have been halved since Chávez took office.” It deems Caracas the “murder capital” of South America, but does not mention that murder rates in Venezuela overall are lower than those in neighboring Colombia and in El Salvador. The president, meanwhile, has not been “punished at the ballot box” for high crime rates because many understand the problem as an inherited one.

CORRECTION: yesterday’s roundup incorrectly stated that Reuters and Time Magazine articles portrayed President Chavez’s call for new legislation ending presidential term limits as “autocratic.” The word autocratic ought not to have had quotation marks around it, for it was not taken verbatim from either article.

December 2, 2008

Venezuela to Aid Nicaragua if US and Europe Refuse

Venezuela has offered economic assistance to Nicaragua if the U.S. and Europe follow through on threats to withdraw anti-poverty aid, according to the AP today. President Ortega said the offer came “without conditions of any sort.”

More news appears today on comments made by President Chavez about the possibility that lawmakers or voters could push a referendum soon on ending presidential term limits. The AP reports that Chavez emphasized that such an initiative should not drag on, saying “I wouldn’t like to spend 2009 in a debate, a long campaign.” Last December, this and 68 other constitutional reforms were defeated by less than two percentage points in a referendum, but experts emphasize continued support for the president. Reuters and Time present the possible end to term limits as an autocratic move by President Chavez, even though his mandate would remain subject to democratic elections. Many other democracies throughout the world — including Canada, Chile, and Peru — do not impose term limits on the top executive.

The BBC reports today that joint naval exercises between Venezuela and Russia are intended to “evaluate the skills and capabilities of the fleets of both nations to fight against terrorism and drug-trafficking,” according to a Russian Vice-Admiral. The exercises, as well as a potential deal on the production of nuclear energy for civilian use, have been portrayed the media as a revival of Cold War-era dynamics. President Chavez, however, has emphasized the issues of sovereignty and multilateralism. The Miami Herald persists in calling the naval exercises an “anti-U.S.” move and reports that Chavez tried to “politicize” the visit of President Medvedev by giving him a Simon Bolivar award.

The Russian leader in fact spent less time in Venezuela than in the other countries he visited: Peru, Brazil, and Cuba. A Washington Post op-ed suggests that the visit was a “farce” that served only to show that Russia “can play games in America’s back yard.” The “back yard” designation is one Latin America has sought to shake.

December 1, 2008

Venezuela Hosts ALBA Summit for Latin American Regional Cooperation

President Chavez proposed a common currency for nations at last week’s summit of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas). According to Bloomberg, he urged regional, cooperative solutions to financial troubles and less dependence on the IMF and World Bank. At the meeting were the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, and Dominica (see image at right). Mainstream media coverage of the event was very limited.

Venezuela begins joint naval exercises with Russia today, the AP reports. Presidents Chavez and Medvedev signed several accords on oil and nuclear energy. A New York Times article suggests that such plans may go nowhere, contrary to evidence of greater cooperation. Reuters reports that the Venezuelan leader told his Russian counterpart, “Our mission is a mission of peace, you are leading us to the balanced multi-polar world.”

News comes today that President Chavez, whose approval ratings are at 55 percent by modest estimates, urged supporters to organize if they wish him to have a chance at reelection in 2012. The current constitution allows two term limits, but legislation has been proposed to allow presidents to run for office beyond that point. The media portrays this as a bid by Chavez to become “president-for-life,” ignoring the fact that Venezuela would remain a democratic country guided by electoral competition. Reelection was one of 69 items included in a set of constitutional reforms that lost narrowly in a referendum last year. Chavez said that he would no longer put forth such legislation, but that voters have the right to bring about a new referendum on the issue if they gather signatures. Voters pushed a referendum on Chavez’s presidency in 2004, which he won with 59% support.

A New York Times editorial offers advice on Latin America for the Obama administration. Though the paper generally claims the U.S. has successfully “ignored” Venezuela, this time it recognizes — and laments — the Bush administration’s support for the failed coup against Chavez in 2002. The Times also insists that Venezuela’s Chavez is “corrupt and autocratic,” despite recent democratic elections deemed exemplary by the OAS, and predicts declining influence for Venezuela in the region, hinting that it will lose economic clout. Many credible experts, on the other hand, have said that Venezuela will remain a robust economy despite lowered oil prices.

Colombia recalled its consul in Venezuela’s second-largest city of Maracaibo on Sunday after he was chastised for making statements against the government. In comments aired on TV, the consul said the election of opposition governors in Zulia and Tachira was “very good news” and called one of the governors a “a very, very special friend,” according to Bloomberg.

Finally, Colombia’s Ingrid Betancourt is on tour to thank the Latin America leaders who helped her escape captivity from the FARC, including President Chavez. The Venezuelan leader negotiated the release of six hostages this year, and was a vocal advocate for Betancourt.

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