VIO News Blog

January 30, 2009

Venezuela Donates Home Heating Oil in Washington, DC

Venezuela’s U.S. oil subsidiary, Citgo, officially launched the fourth season of its home heating oil assistance program at an event in Washington, DC yesterday. This year, the massive charity effort undertaken with Citizen’s Energy will distribute about 45 million gallons of cut-rate oil (valued at $75 million dollars) to 200,000 families across 23 U.S. states.

Citgo President Alejandro Granado dispelled rumors that the program had ended, explaining, “there was a misunderstanding.” He also said the program is intended in part to “build bridges between the people of Venezuela and the United States.”

The St. Petersburg Times wrongly reported yesterday that President Chavez’s “popularity depends on having an adversary in the White House.” His approval ratings remain consistently high at home, but not because of disagreements with former President Bush, but because of social and economic policies that have had an impact at home. The Times also claims that the Venezuelan leader is “at a loss about how to handle the Obama phenomenon.” After a decade in elected office, Chavez is hardly disoriented. Many forget that he visited the White House shortly after being elected the first time and met President Clinton. With Obama, he has avoided jumping to conclusions about what the tone of Venezuela-U.S. relations will be, often saying he has no “illusions” but expressing desire for dialogue.

Sources report today on the ninth annual World Social Forum taking place in Brazil, an alternative summit that drew many important Latin American leaders who opted to skip the simultaneous World Economic Forum in Davos. Bloomberg reports that a top policy adviser to Lula said: “I don’t see any reason for him to be in Davos and many for him to be at the World Social Forum.”

According to the AP, “the loudest cheers were for Chavez.” One activist said: “Chavez is fighting for people like me and his presence validates our movement.” 100,000 are attending the forum.

January 29, 2009

Venezuelan Constitutional Amendment: “Yes” Vote Leads in Public Opinion Polls

Public opinion data in Venezuela indicate that slightly more than half of voters support a constitutional amendment allowing indefinite reelection for holders of public office. Reuters reports that the “yes” camp is leading 51.5 percent to 48.1, a significant jump since campaigns on either side kicked off this month. The AP suggests that the referendum result could hinge on voter turnout.

Reuters makes the false assertion that President Chavez “has consolidated his support in a sometimes violent campaign.” Administration officials have consistently denounced violence among both opposition groups and government supporters, and has called for a peaceful debate. In another article, Reuters writes Chavez “sent police to clash with students,” but in fact the police were asked to stop violence or public disturbance. Opposition to the government is said to be a result of Chavez’s apparent “combative style, disrespect for institutions and attacks on old elites.” No context is offered regarding the coup d’etat, oil industry sabotage, and elections boycotts carried out by the country’s still powerful opposition.

CNN and the BBC report that Israel expelled the Venezuelan ambassador in Jerusalem Tuesday. Venezuela had ended diplomatic relations with Israel in protest of its attacks on Palestine earlier this month. Foreign Minister Maduro said the decision was “just, correct, [and] aligned …with the spirit of our constitution, which mandates that we seek international peace.”

The World Social Forum is taking place this week in Brazil. IPS reports that Indigenous and environmental issues are highlighted at this year’s forum, which focuses on the Amazon. The presidents of Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay are attending the event. Its protagonists, though, are social movements and civil society groups. IPS quotes a Brazilian Indigenous leader who explains that this is because “we are the ones who were born and raised in the middle of the forest, and who lead a lifestyle that contrasts with the ambition of capitalism, which does not bring benefits to all.”

January 28, 2009

Venezuelan FM: Relationship with the Middle East is Transparent

Venezuela has a “transparent relationship” with the Middle East, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said yesterday. The AFP reports that he explained: “We have no official relations with (Hamas and Hezbollah) and if we did we would say so. …Our government totally and absolutely guarantees religious equality and nondiscrimination on religious issues.” The comments were a response to allegations in an Israeli newspaper the same day Israel expelled Venezuelan diplomats.

Maduro also said yesterday that Venezuela respects President Obama’s plan for energy independence, but that “at the same time we have been asking them to respect Venezuelan and Latin American decisions concerning the path we have taken.” According to the Financial Times, Obama plans to cut U.S. oil use by 4m barrels a day within 10 years. U.S. oil consumption has grown over the decade to reach 20.7 million barrels per day, an amount greater that of than any other nation.

The AP and Reuters report on comments by Venezuela’s foreign minister with headlines declaring that Venezuela-U.S. relations will remain on hold under Obama. The actual statements suggest a far more measured position, though; Maduro said that Venezuela will seek to restore diplomatic ties with the U.S. “in the best and most correct manner,” and that this “will probably take some time.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (seen at right) accused Iran of “subversive activity” in Latin America yesterday at a senate hearing in Washington. He claimed Iranians are opening “a lot of offices” in “a number of places.” Venezuela was mentioned as the site of a visit by the Russian navy on its tour of the region last year. Gates joked that the Russians would have had more fun had they visited Miami.

An ALBA summit will be held in Venezuela next week, according to CNN. Set to attend are the leaders of Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia, as well as representatives from Ecuador and other observer nations. They will discuss common initiatives, including a shared currency. CNN mentions the upcoming referendum in Venezuela on term limits, claiming Venezuelans rejected similar legislation last year. However, that referendum concerned 69 proposals including communal property rights, recognition for Afro-Venezuelans, ending foreign funding for political campaigns, and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

USA Today provides a very misleading account of the issue of term limits in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. It wrongly classifies democratic leaders in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as a new class of “strongmen.” The leaders are described as authoritarian despite the fact that they are “generally civilians instead of soldiers, and they take office via elections instead of coups… [and] are staying in office because they are so popular.” Bolivia is singled out for its new constitution, approved in a national referendum last Sunday. The charter  recognizes the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Bolivians and guarantees healthcare, education, water, and a safe environment to all citizens.

January 27, 2009

Venezuelan Social Programs Continue to Operate Despite Low Crude Price

Oil is the top story today, with the Financial Times reporting that the lowered price of crude has caused President Chavez to reign in spending and threatens to undermine the revolutionary process. Strangely, no mention is made of Chavez’s frequent assertion that social programs in Venezuela will continue to be funded using the country’s large foreign currency reserves and development funds. Venezuela’s economic future is hotly debated, with some predicting a crash. Many other analysts have argued precisely the opposite; the Financial Times quotes an expert that says the country has a comfortable current account surplus and that “There’s no pressure on the government to devalue [the currency].”

Potential oil production cuts are also in the news. The AP reports that Venezuela will conform to further cuts mandated by OPEC. Price stabilization is the objective, according to Chavez, who is quoted in Bloomberg as saying: “If necessary, we’ll cut 4 million barrels more of production, but we’re not going to allow oil prices to drop to $6 a barrel again.”

In international news, the Caracas newspaper El Universal reports that Chavez advocated freedom for hostages during his visit to Colombia last weekend. In comments broadcast to captives held by the FARC over a Colombian radio station, the Venezuelan leader said: “I want to greet all of you, and also I am asking for freedom for all, freedom and equality.”

A Washington Post editorial yesterday on reactions to the Obama presidency abroad mentions Venezuela as a “predictable US adversary,” ignoring President Chavez’s appeals for better relations. Chavez wrote in an op-ed Sunday that, if the US can “unclench its fist,” the world is ready to receive the Obama administration with “outstretched hands, full of brotherhood.”

Continuing coverage of Bolivia’s successful approval of a new constitution Sunday in a national referendum contains many references to Venezuela. Time Magazine provides a good overview of Bolivia’s new charter, but mangles a parallel with Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. Time states that Venezuela’s Chavez “failed in his bid at ending presidential term limits,” however, a referendum on this issue is planned for February 15th. Coverage in the Christian Science Monitor features criticisms of Bolivia’s constitution, although it garnered a decisive rate of 60 percent support at the polls.

January 26, 2009

Chavez Congratulates Bolivia on Inclusive New Constitution

President Hugo Chavez congratulated Mr. Morales, stating that the constitutions’ approval strengthens Morales’ “effort to push forward a peaceful and democratic revolution.” Bolivians made history yesterday with the passage of a new constitution which defines Bolivia as a “United Social State of Plurinational Communitarian Law.” The constitution recognizes education, healthcare, and housing as basic human rights. It gives indigenous peoples rights to ancestral land, and all 36 indigenous languages are officially recognized. Afro-Bolivians now have legal recognition as an ethnic group, for the very first time. The AP reports that President Morales praised the passage of the new constitution as the end of the ‘colonial state.’
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavezand Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe
On Saturday, President Uribe of Colombia and President Chavez met in the port town of Cartagena, agreeing that each country will contribute $100 million to a joint fund which will help create small businesses and finance infrastructure projects along the two countries’ shared border. The leaders also discussed manufacturing of primary car components locally to reduce imports. Chavez said that the two countries should aim for $10 billion in bilateral trade by 2009 and 2010, up from $7.2 billion in 2008. Amidst consistent accusations by Colombian and US officials of Chavez’s support for the FARC, the AFP quotes President Chavez stating “”I repeat it again: if I were supporting any subversive, terrorist or violent movement in Colombia, I wouldn’t be here.”

Chavez wrote in his newspaper column that his and other nations will reach toward the U.S. “full of fraternity,” but that President Obama must avoid old antagonisms. The AP makes the erroneous inference that a line out of Obama’s inaugural address which reads “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent…the US will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” was intended for President Chavez. All international observers have confirmed that Venezuela’s elections are free and fair, and that Venezuela’s political opposition can freely dissent. Indeed, the political opposition enjoys widespread coverage in most of the privately owned media. Mr. Chavez wants to improve relations with the U.S., but noted that Washington ought to “open its fists” first.

The AP reported earlier today that a fire at an oil refinery in Western Venezuela injured seven people. Four firefighters and three refinery workers were injured. The incident did not affect oil production or exports.

January 23, 2009

Chavez Renews Demands for Extradition of Accused Terrorist Posada Carriles

President Chavez will step down at the end of his term in 2013 if a constitutional amendment allowing reelection of presidents, mayors and local and national assembly officials is not approved on February 15 through national referendum, reports the Associated Press.

In other news, the Venezuelan Government will soon press the Obama administration to hand over Luis Posada Carriles, wanted by the Venezuelan and Cuban governments for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner which killed 73 people. The New York Times reports that Mr. Posada lives freely in Miami, and that the Bush administration would not extradite him due to its close ties with anti-Castro Cuban hardliners in Miami. Both countries accuse the United States government of hypocrisy in its fight against terror.

Venezuela’s oil minister Rafael Ramirez denied on Thursday that there was a conflict with Brazil over a joint $4 billion refinery project. Earlier reports cited an official from Brazil’s state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA as saying that there was a dispute in how much Brazil should pay for Venezuelan oil, and that Brazil was prepared to build the refinery on its own. According to the Associated Press, Mr. Ramirez called the comments “the opinion of a low-level official.”

The AP reports that Venezuela and Argentina signed a dozen agreements on Thursday, across a spectrum of sectors, including energy, industry, agriculture, and airlines. The two countries have also agreed to a joint development project of oil fields in eastern Venezuela.

The New York Times reports on Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan music director described as a “rising star,” and a “product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education system.” Mr. Dudamel will be directing the prestigious Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra.

January 22, 2009

Venezuelan Students March on Caracas in Support of Chavez

Pro-Chavez students marched in Caracas yesterday, turning out by the hundreds (see image at right). Reports by Bloomberg and the AP focus mainly on the anti-government protests occurring in previous days. Bloomberg reports that President Chavez ordered authorities to “dissolve any disturbance,” while the AP makes the more accurate statement that the Venezuelan leader said security forces should dissolve crowds “if they turn violent.”

Government officials have publicly condemned the acts of violence and vandalism occurring at protests this week and last week. Higher Education Minister Luis Acuna said: “We can’t use the amendment to block streets. This amendment doesn’t need Molotov cocktails. What the amendment needs is a pluralist debate.”

An alarmist Washington Post op-ed today claims that the governments of Venezuela and Russia are authoritarian and eschew human rights. In Venezuela, things could not be more the opposite. Elections are free and fair, and their results do not always favor the Chavez government. Crime is indeed high and has persisted in part because Venezuela is not ruled by an “iron fist” as the op-ed claims. Where past leaders cracked down and killed civilians, Chavez has opted for slower reforms with citizen involvement. Demonstrations are not repressed; protesters have often been allowed to bring their demands before the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. They also get an enormous amount of attention in the media and abroad. Indeed, the Post op-ed is based on a visit to the U.S. Congress by opposition students. Meanwhile, many elected officials in the Venezuelan government are denied U.S. visas, as Time reported yesterday.

Another perspective is offered in an interview with political scientist Daniel Hellinger published by the Venezuela Information Office. Of the upcoming national referendum on term limits for public officials, he says: “I believe the president will win the referendum to make possible indefinite re-election. I anticipate that this will bring a predictable wave of condemnation from the media in the United States. But if the expressed will of the Venezuelan people is to allow re-election, we need to respect their decision. ”

In other news, the AP reports that Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said he hopes Obama rectifies his recent assertion that Venezuela is “a destructive force in the region.” Maduro said: “President Chavez has won 12 of the 14 elections in the past 10 years. He is the legitimate president and his leadership has gone beyond the region and helped create solidarity among the peoples of the world.”

January 21, 2009

Chavez Looks Forward to New Views, Respect from Washington

“From here we salute the people of the United States,” President Chavez said Tuesday in reference to the inauguration of President Obama, according to the New York Times. The AP reports that the Venezuelan leader said he has no illusions, but that he hopes the new U.S. president “looks to Latin America with a new view, with a new focus of respect toward the democracies and the changes.”

Chavez is referred to as a “world-changer” with immense energy in an AP interview with Oliver Stone, who spent time with the Venezuelan leader in order to make a documentary. “Bolivar is back,” he said, and the winds of change are “huge” and “sweeping all over the place.”

The Washington Post reports on Obama’s interview a week ago on the Spanish-language channel Univision. The president-elect had called Chavez an obstacle to progress in the region and said he was concerned by the allegations that “Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC.” Chavez’s response — that Obama “cast the first stone” — was reported as a sign of emerging tensions. Time Magazine reports that last May, Obama gave a speech in which he called the Venezuelan leader a “demagogue” with a “predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government and checkbook diplomacy.” Time indicates that the Summit of the Americas in April will provide another early test of Obama’s Latin America policy.

The Washington Times reports that over the weekend President Chavez “ordered authorities to break up student protests if they turn violent.” Reuters points out that opposition marches are indeed “sometimes violent,” but then assigns blame to the government with its headline: “Venezuela opposition attacked after Chavez speech.” Much of the press today similarly misrepresents the use of tear gas by Caracas police to disperse opposition marchers, failing to mention that it was a response to public outcry when the marchers blocked freeways and paralyzed the city. Authorities did not target the opposition; an AP news photo shows  pro-Chavez demonstrators being arrested by police over the weekend.

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune claims President Chavez “squandered the proceeds” of last year’s oil boom. However, the country has $42 billion in foreign currency reserves and tens of billions more in discretionary government funds. Venezuela also reinvested over $15 billion in the oil industry in 2008. The Tribune argues that the country is desperately courting private investors because of the dive in oil prices, when in fact, firms like Chevron, BP, and Shell never left Venezuela. They began the process of bidding on Orinoco Belt oil projects last year when the value of crude was still extremely high.

January 16, 2009

Chavez: “Obama Threw the First Stone”

President Chavez indicated yesterday that he will wait to see whether President elect Obama — whom he said remains largely “an unknown” — fulfills the intense expectations generated by his election. Bloomberg reports that Chavez cited a TV interview Tuesday in which Obama “remarked that the Venezuelan leader exported terrorist activities and slowed progress in the region.” The Venezuelan leader replied: “Don’t say Chavez is throwing stones, Obama already threw the first one.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro met yesterday with U.S. embassy staff in Caracas, according to the AP. Top U.S. rep John Caulfield said afterward, “We spoke about the opportunity for a renewed dialogue.” Caulfield also allegedly met in secret with leaders of Venezuela’s political opposition last week, according to a report in NACLA. It states: “if the allegations are proven, then the opposition will once again find itself on the defensive, trying to disprove that their funding and strategy are not ‘Made in U.S.A.'”

In other international news, the Presidents of Venezuela and Brazil are holding their regular quarterly meeting today. The Caracas newspaper El Universal reports that this signals even closer ties between the countries. The leaders are discussing trade relations, particularly a cooperation agreement on food supply.

The New York Daily News reports on Venezuela’s heating oil assistance program in the Bronx. Recipients of the aid were relieved by the news last week that, despite rumors to the contrary, the program will continue for a fourth year. One man said: “We appreciate what [Chávez] is doing, helping us out from another country… People depend on [it].”

Reuters reports that CIA Director Michael Hayden said that, for oil producers Iran and Venezuela, lowered crude prices are “destabilizing, but it could be positive,” because it will increase the sting of U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, President Chavez has stressed that Venezuela will not be destabilized. He says the government will continue to spend on social programs, and will not force the people to suffer the burden of economic downturn. Venezuela’s foreign currency reserves are at an all-time high.

January 15, 2009

Venezuela’s National Assembly Votes in Favor of Referendum

Lawmakers in Venezuela’s National Assembly voted 156 to 6 in favor of holding a national referendum on the issue of term limits. AFP reports that one lawmaker explained he supported the amendment “so that all legally able citizens can run for election and the people can choose from them without limitations of any kind.”

AFP reports that President Chavez said his intention is not to remain in office indefinitely. He said: “What we have here is a national independence project that still needs more work to consolidate. It’s not consolidated yet.” The referendum will likely occur on February 15th.

The AP and AFP report that Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry announced yesterday a formal break in diplomatic ties with Israel, citing “inhumane persecution of the Palestinian people.” A statement quoted by AFP says: “Israel has systematically ignored United Nations (ceasefire) calls, repeatedly and unashamedly violating approved resolutions…and placing itself increasingly outside international law.” Bolivian President Evo Morales also cut ties with Israel, saying its attacks “seriously threatened world peace.”

A contradictory report from the New York Times states that Venezuela is “quietly courting” foreign firms to help exploit the Orinoco Belt oil projects nationalized in 2007. Bidding by private investors like Chevron, Shell, Total, and BP is presented as a something Chavez was forced to do after oil prices crashed, but in fact, the article states that it began when oil prices were high. Several foreign firms have remained on throughout the nationalization. To bring the Orinico Belt oil projects under the rubric of national control established in 1976, Venezuela’s PDVSA is simply purchasing the majority of shares.

Finally, in international relations, a letter in the International Herald Tribune asks Obama to take “a new approach to Chavez,” for “many Latin Americans see him as the symbolic voice for those who Washington has all too often ignored.” The letter states that Venezuela should at least be treated as a “legitimate business partner.”

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