VIO News Blog

February 26, 2009

Venezuela Condemns State Department Report

The U.S. State Department released their annual report on human rights yesterday.  As in previous years, it alleges that Venezuela has a politicized judiciary, and that the Venezuelan government harasses the political opposition and news media. Venezuela on Thursday condemned the report and categorically rejected what it says are false allegations and a clear example of political meddling in its internal affairs. Contrary to the impression given by the report, Venezuela’s opposition parties enjoy all the political freedoms that are found in other democratic countries and have in fact made significant gains in recent elections.  Meanwhile, freedom of speech is fully respected, as is demonstrated by the fact that a majority of private media outlets remain ardent and vocal critics of the government.

CIA Director Leon Panetta mentioned Ecuador, Argentina and Venezuela as countries which may be destabilized as a result of the global financial crisis, McClatchy reports. This analysis is surprising given that it is estimated that Venezuela has close to $70 billion in reserves, and many experts predict that Venezuela will be able to weather the economic storm, even if oil prices remain low for the next two years or so.

Bloomberg reports that China National Petroleum Corp. received government approval for the construction of a refinery China’s Guangdong province, which will be built to process 200,000 barrels of Venezuelan crude oil a day.

Finally, The Miami Herald reports that Costa Rican president Oscar Arias has said his country’s full entry into PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan led group of Carribbean and Central American nations which have signed a series of beneficial energy cooperation agreements, appears to be delayed due to plunging oil prices. Arias questioned how interested Venezuela was in continuing PetroCaribe, given the current economic crisis. However, on Wednesday, Venezuelan Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez reaffirmed that Venezuela will maintain the program to provide aid to ‘brother countries.’

February 25, 2009

French President Congratulates Chavez

French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated President Chavez on his party’s victory in Venezuela’s Feb. 15 referendum on term limits. Venezuelanalysis reports that last week in a letter to President Chavez, the French President stated that “I hope the results will allow you to continue the policies you have implemented in the last ten years, especially those improving social justice and reducing inequality in your country.”

A Washington Post piece quotes an opposition-aligned Venezuelan Congressman as stating that the recent approval of Venezuela’s referendum on term limits was “a major fraud.” The Post fails to mention that numerous national and international observers deemed the voting process as ‘free and fair’ as did a majority of the leaders of Venezuela’s opposition parties.  The article goes on to depict the Venezuelan opposition as embattled dissidents struggling “to carve out space for itself within often-limiting, even hostile confines.”  However, as the article itself points out, the fact that the opposition is so marginalized institutionally is largely due to its own decision to boycott the last National Assembly elections.  The Post also fails to inform readers that Venezuela’s opposition parties stand to make important political gains in the near future.  Most opposition parties are now participating fully in elections and, based on the strong results they obtained in the Feb 15 referendum, are expected to regain significant political space in next year’s legislative elections.

The Charge d’Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, Angelo Rivero Santos, replied to a Washington Times Sunday Column “Chavez holds Venezuela” which asserted that Venezuelans were “duped” into approving the amendment on term limits.  Rivero states that the column’s authors are influenced by a “cold war mentality” that prevents them from recognizing the strengthening of democracy that has taken place in Venezuela and Latin America through the implementation of policies of social and political inclusion for those who have been traditionally excluded.

With oil prices this year averaging $36 per barrel, Bloomberg reports that Venezuela will propose further oil production cuts at next month’s OPEC meeting. Venezuela’s Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez has said that if prices continue to remain low for two or three years, it may lead to difficult consequences. Rodriguez said that the government is currently evaluating various policy changes to confront the global economic crisis.

February 23, 2009

Venezuelan Social Programs will Continue Despite Lower Petroleum Prices

On Friday, President Chavez stated that while a continued lull in oil prices would be difficult on Venezuela, social spending on issues like housing, healthcare, education and subsidized food will not be curtailed.

The Wall Street Journal quotes an anonymous US state department official as saying that “The state of health of democracy in Venezuela is not very good,” and asserting that US policy towards Venezuela has not changed, despite the acknowledgment of a senior state department official that last week’s referendum in Venezuela was  “fully consistent with democratic practice” and that the US seeks a positive relationship with Venezuela.

A slew of negative press graced the headlines this weekend on Venezuela’s recent electoral process.  The Washington Times makes the extraordinary claim that the election was “very possibly secured by fraud” and that “about 50 percent of the Venezuelan electorate has been duped into democratically authorizing dictatorship.” The author of this piece is perhaps unaware that both independent electoral monitors and the main opposition parties recognized the results of the election.  A Newsweek editorial also questioned the democratic nature of the referendum and contended that “Chávez used every conceivable instrument of the state, every imaginable subterfuge, every trick in the book, to stack the deck in his favor and against his opponents.” There is no mention in the editorial of the fact that the large majority of the private media is hostile to President Chavez and his political movement.   An egregious commentary published by McClatchy argues that Venezuela is faced with one of two negative scenarios in its future as a result of the referendum on term limits being approved last Sunday. The commentary describes Venezuela as an “authoritarian populist” country, but ignores the fact that Venezuela has held about a dozen referendums in the past decade, and that elections have consistently been characterized as ‘free and fair’ by international and national independent observers. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Charge d’ affairs in Washington, Angelo Rivero Santos, responded to a February 19th Houston Chronicle editorial ominously entitled “Confronting Chavez.” He reminded the editors that the referendum concerned the removal of term limits for all elected officials, and that international observers declared the elections as ‘free and fair.’   Rivero also reminded them that on Feb. 14, President Hugo Chavez once again called for improved relations between the United States and Venezuela.

A letter to the editor in the Washington Post regarding a February 12th editorial “Mr. Chávez vs. the Jews” argues that the Post should not have painted Mr. Chavez with a broad brush, and asserted that the editorial “baselessly accused him of anti-Semitism.”

Finally, a Washington Post book review on Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan’s book Hugo Chávez And the War Against America, notes that the authors undermine their argument that Chavez is a greater threat to the US than Osama Bin Laden “with hyperbole and unsupported allegations.” The review criticizes the book’s authors for alleging  that Venezuela supports al-Qaida, and that Hezbollah has “at least five training camps in Venezuela”without offering evidence or footnotes to back this startling claim.

February 19, 2009

Venezuela and China Create Strategic Alliance

The joint development fund between Venezuela and China grew by $6 billion in deals signed this week to reach a total of $12 billion, according to the AP. The BBC reports that the funds could be used in Venezuela to support education, health, infrastructure, farming, and mining. Citing common interests and a “strategic alliance,” President Chavez said Venezuela would supply China with a million more barrels of oil per day (a fourfold increase) by 2015.

Also in oil news, Venezuela will boost its oil output by 12 percent over seven years through joint ventures with foreign firms in the Orinoco oil belt. Bloomberg reports that a leaked government document cited development costs of $18.4 billion for the projects. Meanwhile, rumored oil production cuts by OPEC are now said to be aimed at raising crude prices to $70 per barrel, according to the AP. Venezuela’s oil minister said the market is oversupplied and prices should be stabilized.

Two opinion pices today weigh in on Venezuela’s recent national referendum, in which voters chose to end term limits for elected officials. A Washington Times op-ed — one of nearly half a dozen recent ones in that paper criticizing Venezuela’s referendum — accuses the president of “buying votes.” The elections were free and fair, though, and social programs that have redirected oil revenues to the poor have helped halve the poverty rate over nearly a decade. The op-ed also overlooks the fact that Venezuela has been democratic for over half a century, citing just “two decades” of democratic gains. It also ignores the fact that experts recognize a dramatic increase in popular participation in politics under President Chavez. An editorial in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times of Texas makes similar doom-and-gloom economic predictions with little basis in fact in order to claim that Venezuela is “in sorry shape.”

The only bad news on the economy in Venezuela today concerns fraud by private foreign firms. After $8 billion in fraud by Stanford International Bank was revealed and investors rapidly withdrew yesterday, Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez tried to ease concerns, saying: “The public needs to maintain confidence in Venezuelan banks. This is an immediate takeover. The problem facing Stanford is separate from the Venezuelan financial system.” Venezuela followed Panama and Colombia in taking over Stanford operations.

Reuters reports that Stanford Bank, owned by a Texas billionaire, was long “a favored investment vehicle for Latin America’s wealthy and upper class.” The New York Times describes how the bank “lured clients in provincial cities,” amassing about $2.5 billion from among 10,000 clients in Venezuela — about a third of Stanford’s business, but only 0.2 percent of total banking deposits throughout Venezuela.

February 18, 2009

US Seeks Positive Relationship with Venezuela

More news comes today about remarks by State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid, who said the US seeks a “positive relationship” with Venezuela. The AFP reports that he also called the national referendum last Sunday “a matter for the Venezuelan people.” For his part, President Chavez has made clear in recent weeks an openness to dialogue with the Obama administration, and positive relations with the United States.

An opinion piece in the Guardian sees continuity in U.S.-Latin America relations so far under the Obama administration, but urges change. Meanwhile, a Miami Herald editorial argues that a strong, united opposition in Venezuela is “the only hope of keeping democracy alive under Mr. Chávez.” The Herald fails to acknowledge the very democratic nature in which elections and referendums are held. Over 70% of eligible voters voted in Sunday’s referendum, and 54% voted in favor of the measure.

A Boston Herald op-ed accuses President Chavez of continuing to support the FARC rebel group in Colombia. However, the Chavez administration has repeatedly denied support for the group, and has even made an appeal to FARC that it must lay down its arms and join Colombian society. Furthermore, Chavez was instrumental in the release of several FARC hostages over the past year.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the financial challenges facing the Chavez administration in lieu of the continued lull in oil prices. It notes that Chavez has “weathered lean times before,” but forgets that he has vowed to continue important social programs. Bloomberg reports that Venezuelan Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez acknowledges that the global economic crisis will affect Venezuela and has said that the country will need to curtail spending and limit imports. However, he added that Venezuela would be able to withstand the crisis without too much “anguish.”

Finally, Bloomberg reports that Venezuela and China signed various economic agreements as Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Caracas yesterday. The two countries renewed a bilateral development fund, with an additional $6 billion in joint funding. In a address to the Chinese delegation, President Chavez said: “All the oil China needs for the next 200 years, it’s here. It’s in Venezuela.” China will also increase cooperation with Venezuela in agriculture and telecommunications.

February 17, 2009

Venezuelan Referendum Hailed as Democratic by US State Department

Last Sunday’s referendum in Venezuela was “a process that was fully consistent with democratic practice,” according to President Obama’s State Department Spokesperson, Gordon Duguid. Pressed for a reaction, he said the referendum “was a matter for the Venezuelan people” and “I don’t have an opinion on the democratic practices of Venezuelans. In the United States, we have term limits, but that’s our practice.” According to the AP, this amounted to “rare praise for a U.S. antagonist after years of criticism from the Bush administration.”

The opposite approach is seen in three nearly indistinguishable editorials in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Dallas Morning News. They label Venezuela’s national referendum undemocratic, call President Chavez “authoritarian” and “dictatorial,” and anticipate an economic crash. None provides any facts to back up their claims. The Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning news ask President Obama to ignore Venezuela, while the L.A. Times says he must “reengage.” The editorials do not advance either of these goals, though, by rejecting the majority decision made by the Venezuelan people and their right to make such choices.

The AP, Reuters, and AFP continue to report on reactions to the referendum. Most state that the administration of President Chavez feels its mandate has been strengthened by another solid victory at the polls, meanwhile, criticisms by the opposition have not lessened. The Los Angeles Times features these by printing an interview with Teodoro Petkoff, who was briefly a presidential challenger in 2006 and was planning minister under the neoliberal Caldera government.

Finally in economic news, the BBC news reports that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will soon visit Venezuela as part of a regional tour to boost trade ties. The two countries are expected to sign a long-term joint oil production agreement worth several billion dollars.

February 13, 2009

Venezuelan Jewish Community Thanks Government for Swift Action

The President of Venezuela’s Israelite Association thanked the government for “returning peace and tranquility to our congregation” yesterday at a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (seen at far right). He also praised police “for apprehending the perpetrators” a synagogue was vandalized January 30th. According to the Caracas newspaper El Universal, Maduro said Venezuela’s government will continue to offer the Jewish community “cooperation, respect and solidarity.” Despite this and other evidence to the contrary, the New York Times reports that Jews in Venezuela have “a sense of dread” and the government has only “sown confusion.”

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas yesterday in support of a “yes” vote in Sunday’s referendum on whether or not to allow elected officials to run for more than two terms. The AP provides Chavez’s statements in favor of the amendment and quotes heavily from critics who say they amount to intimidation, ignoring the fact that the Venezuelan leader vowed again yesterday that he will remain democratic. “We will abide by whatever results; we will acknowledge the authority of institutions,” Chavez said.

Venezuelan lawmakers who recently visited Washington discuss the referendum and the issues at stake in Foreign Policy Magazine. Calixto Ortega said: “Venezuela is a victim of an ongoing campaign of disinformation, poor information, and sometimes demonizing of our own [electoral] process.” Meanwhile, according to Francisco Torrealba, Sunday’s referendum is “a recognition of the political rights of Venezuelans. We want to perfect our democracy.” An op-ed in Green Left Weekly offers an argument in favor of respecting Venezuela’s democracy. It concludes: “The Venezuelan people have the right to determine their political system and decide for themselves who can or cannot stand for election.”

A Washington Times editorial is emblematic of U.S. media treatment Venezuela ahead of the referendum. Contrary to what the editorial claims, voters are not bribed by so-called “shock troops” that support Chavez, nor does the opposition face intimidation. As always, opposition groups have demonstrated and had ample access to the country’s largely private media. Rather than an accurate evaluation of the realities of Venezuela, the Washington Times offers the following opinion of President Chavez: “We would be delighted to see him leave office some day, preferably soon.”

In the U.S. yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair addressed the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. He issued warnings about Venezuela, claiming the country offers a “safe haven” to Colombian rebels, though this is not — nor has it ever been — a policy of the Chavez government. He also alleged that Venezuela is making the region a “permissive environment for Hezbollah to exploit.” Again, this runs counter the the positions of Venezuelan government officials, who repeatedly reassert that they do not support terrorism.

Finally, in energy news, sources report that Venezuelan-owned Citgo will carry out layoffs of less than two percent of personnel. Lowered demand for oil is also causing OPEC to adjust its forecasts for 2009, according to Bloomberg. The French oil firm Total will maintain its investments in Venezuela rather than moving on to Brazil, however; the company says it will expand investments there because “Venezuela is an important target for acreage.”

February 12, 2009

Chavez Supporters Encourage Voter Turnout in Referendum

Encouraging voter turnout is the top focus of campaigning among Chavez supporters, according the BBC today. One volunteers said: “Many claim victory too early and don’t actually go out to vote. …Our job is to mobilise people and show them the importance of this referendum for our revolution.” While pro-Chavez campaigners go door-to-door, the BBC reports that the “no” campaign has relied on TV commercials on private channels, emails, text messages, and distributing pamphlets in the street.

President Chavez spoke of an attempted coup yesterday, but stressed that “The country must remain calm. It has a government that is alert and a good guardian and capable of stopping this outrage.” Bloomberg reports that Chavez said some soldiers were arrested and weapons seized.

The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal report on municipal politics in Caracas. Both report on claims made by the city’s municipal mayor, Antonio Ledezma, whom the Journal points out is “a member of the [pre-Chavez] political elite” and had the same job 17 years ago, back when mayors were presidential appointees. Ledezma accuses the Chavez government of funding citizen groups to intimidate the opposition, a position he used to justify firing several thousand city workers others say were legitimate.

A number of false claims about the Chavez government have been made in the lead-up to the national referendum on Sunday, the worst perhaps being allegations of anti-Semitism that were spread again today by the Washington Post. An editorial wrongly states that the Chavez government has found a “new enemy” in the country’s Jewish community, when in fact concrete steps have been taken to clarify and improve relations with Jews. The Post conveniently forgets that Chavez recently signed a declaration against anti-Semitism and twice arranged meetings with Jewish leaders. Not long ago, he said the country’s Jewish community “is a big part of the Venezuelan family.”

Also ahead of Sunday’s referendum, USA Today offers a laundry list of problems in Venezuela, trumping up fears of an economic crisis that certainly is not unique to that country. Meanwhile, a Washington Times opinion piece weighs in with characteristic inaccuracy, claiming that Venezuela will become a dictatorship if the majority of voters approve the amendment to allow holders of public office to run for reelection more than once. It also claims fraud will occur, though all electoral observers agree that it never has under Chavez. Regular free and fair elections will continue to occur regardless of the referendum result.

February 11, 2009

Reuters: Venezuela’s Chavez Improving the Lives of Millions

Efforts by the Venezuelan government to reduce poverty and improve the lives of average citizens are are the source of President Chavez’s continued popularity, Reuters reported yesterday. Among other initiatives such as an innovative cable car, Chavez is known for “investing in health clinics and projects to move families from precarious shacks.” One supporter explains: “He’s the only president who has really worked for the poor,” a fact that Reuters says is “making Venezuela’s millions of poor feel cared for.”

Reuters also reports that, ahead of Sunday’s referendum, President Chavez “has toned down his usually aggressive rhetoric toward the opposition to focus on getting his supporters out to vote.” A very different story is presented by Bloomberg and the New York Times, the latter of which calls the campaigning “ugly.” It suggests that pro-government groups go unpunished for crimes just before mentioning the arrest of the leader of one such notorious organization. The Chavez government has consistently asked for a peaceful debate on all sides.

In other campaign-related news, President Chavez responded to Venezuela’s overwhelmingly opposition-aligned media yesterday by calling its accusations of antisemitism false and damaging. The AP reports that Chavez called the accusations a “criminal attempt to try to unleash a religious war in Venezuela.” Four days remain until the national referendum.

Finally, the Boston Globe lumps Venezuela together with Iran as a supposed “anti-US regime” in an article but offers no explanation or context. Its claim is that so-called “anti-US” leaders are afraid President Obama will steal their electoral base, as though the US leader were a ballot option abroad. For his part, President Chavez has frequently said publicly that he welcomes better relations with the US under Obama.

February 9, 2009

Venezuela Counts Down to Sunday’s Referendum

As the February 15th vote on term limits nears in Venezuela, there has been much coverage on the lead up to the referendum. AP reports that a grenade exploded at the headquarters of Democratic Action, an opposition party.  President Chavez has condemned violence by the opposition as well as supporters alike, and has said that those who break the law will be held accountable.  On Saturday, he called on the Venezuelan Attorney General to bring to justice a small group called La Piedrita which has claimed responsibility for several incidents that have taken place over the last few weeks.

The AFP reports that “tens of thousands” protested the upcoming referendum on term limits in Caracas on Saturday.  The protest unrolled peacefully along an 11-mile stretch of roadways that ran from the city outskirts to the downtown area.

An AP article about the coming referendum falsely asserts that President Chavez “has long cast himself as the only one who can save the region from a meddling United States”.  The article also suggests that Chavez doesn’t wish to have good relations with the new US Administration even though he has repeatedly stated that he is willing to sit down with President Obama and work on building better relations.

The AP also reports that the Venezuelan government announced that 11 people suspected of involvement in the January 30th vandalizing of a Caracas synagogue were arrested. The arrest included 7 police officers and 1 security guard from the synagogue. Elias Farache, president of the Venezuelan-Israelite Association said “We thank the authorities for the quick detention of the suspects. We also want to thank all of those who showed their solidarity with us.”

Meanwhile, an article that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, leaves the impression that the Venezuelan government has fostered a climate of antisemitism by failing, in the words of ADL president Abraham Foxman, “to differentiate between criticism of Israel and criticism of the Jewish people.”  However, President Chavez and other high officials in the Venezuelan government have consistently signaled that, while their government is critical of Israel’s military action in Gaza it wishes to have the best possible relations with the Jewish community, both in Venezuela and internationally.

Reuters reports that Venezuela’s finance minister Ali Rodriguez discussing oil prices in the context of the Venezuelan economy has said “We have prepared different scenarios that go from $20 upward. We don’t think it will fall below that level.” Rodriguez added that “If we have to make great sacrifices in public spending, we must make the maximum effort to ensure it is not in the social sector.” Bloomberg reports that the Venezuelan government will tap into $1.65 billion from its National Development Fund in the first quarter, to maintain public spending amidst a steep decline in the price of oil. President Chavez stated that Venezuela plans to invest $225 billion in oil and non-oil projects over the next four years.

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