VIO News Blog

May 1, 2009

Chavez Reaffirms Neutrality Regarding Colombia’s Internal Conflict

Following the killing of 8 soldiers near Colombia’s border with Venezuela, President Chavez declared that his government would not allow FARC rebel forces to use Venezuelan territory to mount assaults inside the neighboring country.  Chavez also reaffirmed his country’s traditional policy of neutrality regarding Colombia’s internal conflict and stated that Venezuela would “not permit any type of armed incursion… wherever it comes from.”  Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro earlier announced that his government would collaborate with Colombia on efforts to capture the FARC guerrilla members responsible for the killing of the 8 soldiers.

Reuters reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told foreign service officers today that she did not consider that it was in the US’s interest to attempt to isolate countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, as the Bush Administration had done.  “The prior administration tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to turn them into international pariahs,” said Clinton. “It didn’t work.”  The Secretary of State explained that the failed policy had allowed Iran, Russia and China to make “disturbing” political and economic gains in the region over the last few years.

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal repeats the worn out claim that the Venezuelan government promotes anti-Semitism, despite the fact that President Chavez and other officials have strongly condemned all forms of anti-Jewish behavior and have engaged with Venezuelan Jewish community groups in a manner that has drawn praise from international organizations like the Jewish Latin American Congress.  Rather than consulting representatives of Venezuela’s established Jewish organizations like the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela, the author of the piece refers to the extreme views of Pynchas Brenner, a notorious radical opponent of the Chavez government, and US rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.  The piece also re-hashes the discredited claim that President Chavez made anti-Semitic statements in December 2004, despite the fact that Venezuela’s Jewish community representatives argued against the claim.

Finally, US Republicans have produced a new video featuring the recent handshake between Presidents Obama and Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.  The video, that has been broadcast via the internet, suggests that Obama’s decision to have courteous exchanges with Chavez and other leaders deemed to be unfriendly to US interests, has weakened the country’s national security.

March 27, 2009

Vandals Apprehended in Caracas

For the third year in a row, many rural Alaskans will receive free heating fuel from Citgo, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, AP reports. The effort is part of a nation-wide subsidized heating oil program run by Citgo that benefits thousands of low income communities across the United States.

Venezuelan prosecutors have filed charges against 11 individuals apprehended in the break-in and vandalizing of a Caracas synagogue in January, according to AP. Venezuelan authorities have said that the intruders may have vandalized the synagogue premises in order to turn attention away from the motive of theft.

In a Washington Post op-ed by Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman of the Los Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center, the authors draw comparisons between Chavez and Hitler and assert that the Venezuelan government has carried out anti-semitic acts. It should be noted that, in 2004, the Wiesenthal Center directed similar accusations of anti-Semitism at Chavez, drawing a sharp rebuke from Venezuela’s main Jewish organization which stated that it rejected the accusations and lamented not having been consulted beforehand by the Center.

Earlier in the week, in an op-ed distributed by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Angelo Rivero-Santos, the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, responded to allegations of anti-Semitism directed at the government of Venezuela.  Rivero- Santos states that “Venezuela’s Jewish community is an integral and essential part of our country’s singularly diverse society.” Given President Chavez’s efforts to fight racism and discrimination,  accusations of anti-Semitism have been “especially painful for the government of Venezuela.”

In economic news, Reuters reports that trade in Venezuela’s parallel market for exchanging Bolivars for dollars has been largely paralyzed due to the freezing of a key account by US government authorities.  The authorities did not comment on the reason behind their decision.

The Venezuelan government will create several state owned companies to replace oil service contractors, the Miami Herald reports. President Chavez said that the new companies will carry out oil services such as the maintenance and operation of oil wells – not private contractors.

Finally, an article by Oxford Analytica asserts that the recent budget cuts and economic measures taken by the Venezuelan government are primarily symbolic and won’t reverse the current economic trend in Venezuela. The article states that more changes should be expected by the government. However, the Chavez administration has ruled out currency devaluation or a hike in domestic gas prices. In addition, with $20 billion being invested in non-oil sector industries, and over $70 billion in reserves, the government has a significant cushion to deal with the economic situation.

March 25, 2009

Venezuelan City has new Sister in Wisconsin

Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee and Edgar Carracaso, mayor of Carora, signed a sister city agreement on Tuesday. It marks the first such agreement between a Venezuelan and a U.S. city in the past 10 years. Mayor Carrasco stated that “Our governments may have differences, but that doesn’t offset our countries’ abilities to know each other.” Carrasco added that Carora will be developing the Casa El Alba to promote cultural and economic ties between the two cities and offer US visitors information about the city of Carora and Venezuela.

Venezuela’s biggest mosque, located in downtown Caracas, was robbed and ransacked according to the Associated Press. No suspects have yet been identified. An administrator said it was the second time the mosque had been broken into since September of last year.  In February of this year, an important Caracas synagogue was also broken into and vandalized.  Though various news outlets presented the incident as an “anti-Semitic” attack, a police investigation indicated that the primary motive was theft.

Venezuela’s Supreme Court has decided to move the corruption trial of Maracaibo’s mayor Manuel Rosales from the state of Zulia to Caracas, as judges in Rosales’s home state were allegedly caught meeting with the opposition mayor. Four judges in Zulia have also been suspended from their duties by the Supreme Court for participating in the alleged meeting. Rosales asserted that the decision was made by the Chavez government in order to find an “obedient judge.” Zulia lawmaker Calixto Ortega, however, stated that at least one of the four sanctioned judges was in a position to exercise direct influence on the Rosales case.

In economic news, the AP reports that progress is being made in establishing the Bank of the South, a regional financial institution designed to provide an alternative to the IMF and World Bank, both of which have strong ties to the US Treasury Department. The Bank of the South is expected to launch its operations in May with $10 billion in initial capital. Its members are currently Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

Finally, McClatchy reports that CIA cybersecurity expert Steve Stigall has claimed that Venezuela’s electronic voting system is not secure and was tampered with by President Chavez during a 2004 referendum on his presidency. Without providing any evidence to back his assertions, Stigall stated that “it was my understanding that” the computer program used for the audit of the voting machines “was provided by Chavez.” Stigall’s claims, made before a hearing in Orlando, Florida, run contrary to the assessment made by independent electoral monitoring missions from the Carter Center and the OAS, that concluded that the 2004 elections had been fair and transparent.

March 24, 2009

Venezuelan Economy Adjusts to Oil Prices

After President Chavez on Saturday announced a series of economic measures to adjust for lowered oil prices, the Associated Press reports that on Monday several analysts warned that the steps would not be enough to tackle the more serious economic problems of inflation and slowed growth. Reuters quotes a Morgan Stanley analyst as saying that, after several years of record economic growth, Venezuela’s economy will likely contract by 4% this year.  However, with over $70 billion in foreign currency reserves, Venezuela is sticking to its plan to invest $20 billion in non-oil sector development projects this year.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Venezuela’s Bolivar strengthened on Monday in the parallel market after Chavez ruled out a currency devaluation.

The AFP reports that President Chavez denied rumors of a rift between Raul Castro and himself, and described such talk as “a little campaign.” The rumor of such a rift was promoted by former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, who later signaled that he has absolutely no evidence to back up his claim.

Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has proposed that the nation’s charter be re-drafted in order to adapt to the “substantial and significant changes” that have occurred since the adoption of the current constitution in 1982. Zelaya wants voters to decide by June 24th whether a constitutional assembly should be convoked. The move would follow in the footsteps of other countries in the region such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

In an op-ed distributed by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Angelo Rivero Santos, the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, responds to allegations of anti-Semitism directed at the government of Venezuela.   Rivero states that “Venezuela’s Jewish community is an integral and essential part of our country’s singularly diverse society.” Given President Chavez’s efforts to fight racism and discrimination,  accusations of anti-Semitism have been “especially painful for the government of Venezuela.”  But Rivero signals that these accusations have been made primarily by organizations based outside of Venezuela and that an organization representing Venezuelan Jews has rejected the claims and expressed disappointment at not having been consulted beforehand.

Finally in an interview by Fareed Zakaria, President Lula da Silva of Brazil was questioned about why his government does not speak out against how Hugo Chavez has “destroyed democracy in Venezuela.” Da Silva responded by stating that “…no one can say that there is no democracy in Venezuela. He (Chavez) has been through five, six elections. I’ve only had two.”  There have in fact been fourteen national elections in Venezuela since Chavez first came to power in 1998, all of which have been characterized as free and fair by independent electoral monitoring groups.

March 23, 2009

Chavez and Delahunt Meet in Caracas

United States Congressman William Delahunt (D-MA) met with President Chavez in Caracas, and told reporters that he had a “very positive and constructive conversation.” The AP states that Mr. Delahunt left the meeting expressing hopefulness about the prospect of improved relations between the United States and Venezuela.

On Thursday, Venezuelan public prosecutor Katiuska Plaza called for the arrest of Manuel Rosales, mayor of the city of Maracaibo, on charges of corruption during his previous years as governor of the state of Zulia. The Miami Herald quotes an opposition-aligned commentator who suggests that the decision is a political one by President Chavez aimed at inciting fear within the opposition. . The Herald also quotes Human Rights Watch to substantiate the claim that Chávez has “effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government.”  The article states that the Venezuelan government accuses HRW of anti-Chavez bias.  It fails to inform readers that critics of HRW’s work on Venezuela also include an independent group of 100 academics that recently signed a letter arguing that HRW’s 2008 report on the Chavez government’s human rights record was methodologically flawed and highly biased.

The government of Venezuela is to announce measures to combat the effects of the global economic crisis Saturday. Reuters reports that the Bolivar is losing value due to economic fears, and Bloomberg reports that Goldman Sachs believes that President Chavez may announce a currency devaluation tomorrow.  President Chavez said that public officials needed to stop living “lavish lifestyles”but insisted that the government’s many popular social programs would be maintained.

Japan and Venezuela signed an oil cooperation agreement yesterday. Bloomberg reports that the deal clears the way for Japanese companies to co-develop oil reserves in the Orinoco Delta, with Venezuela’s state oil company.

President Chavez said Thursday that Venezuela will go ahead with the nationalization of Santander bank, and that negotiations regarding payments are continuing. Reuters quotes Chavez as stating “We are not retreating. Today we have returned to the subject, I announce the nationalization of Banco de Venezuela to strengthen the national public banking system.”

A letter to the editor “Misguided guilt by association” by Jacob Feinspan of Jews United for Justice in the Washington Times sends a strong rebuttal to a previous letter from Brad Botwin on Monday titled “The new face of anti-semitism.” Botwin argued that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was promoting anti-semitism and that Casa de Maryland, a community organization in the DC area, was expressing approval for antisemitism by accepting funding from Citgo, a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company. Feinspan stated that the “Jewish community also knows all too well the dangers of false and baseless accusations or conspiracy theories.”

Finally, Korea and Venezuela will face off against one another in the World Baseball Classic tomorrow.

March 19, 2009

Venezuelan President to Visit Japan

Bloomberg reports that President Chavez will visit Japan in April, according to statements made by energy minister Rafael Ramirez who is currently visiting that nation.  Venezuela is set to sign an energy cooperation agreement with Japan today that may lead to an increase in loans to Venezuela by Japanese financial institutions, according to Reuters.  The South American nation also recently announced that it will invest more than $6 billion in oil projects with Russia.  In other energy news, President Chavez said that his government is open to El Salvador’s participation in Petro-Caribe, an energy initiative that removes middlemen and provides petroleum and other resources at market prices through beneficial financing terms.

Bloomberg reports on Venezuela’s recent moves to nationalize certain companies and claims that the government has an inadequate amount of cash to do so. While it is true that the oil market has affected Venezuela, the country maintains record levels of foreign currency reserves and has not, to date, defaulted on payment to national or foreign companies.

Venezuela beat the US 10-6 in a World Baseball Classic match yesterday in Miami.  Both teams will be competing in this weekend’s semifinals.  Meanwhile, NPR reports that the well-known Venezuelan baseball player Magglio Ordonez has been booed during his games with the Detroit Tigers for having supported President Chavez publicly. Of the mostly upper-class Venezuelan fans who partake in this behavior, Ordonez says “I have nothing against [the fans],”but, “I don’t think they’re well-informed.”

The Washington Times reports on remarks made by President Obama’s special advisor to the Summit of the Americas, Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow.  “He is going to Trinidad with the intention of treating all the presidents there with the respect that they merit as elected heads of state… And it is my hope that all the other presidents there will treat each other with that same kind of respect and use the kind of language one would expect in polite company.” With no factual basis for the suggestion, the Times goes on to opine that Davidow was probably referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Finally, an article in Washington Jewish Week contrasts the views of various American Jews regarding an alleged “climate of fear and intimidation” affecting Venezuela’s Jewish community.  While a Washington-based rabbi compares the situation to that which existed in Nazi Germany, a representative of the American Jewish Congress states that she is “guardedly encouraged” by actions taken by the Venezuelan government.  Largely absent from this article is the point of view of representatives of the Venezuelan Jewish community, with only a brief quote from a Venezuelan Jew in the second to last paragraph.  No mention is made of the fact that President Chavez and other high level officials have consistently condemned all forms of anti-Semitism.

It is also worth noting that the accusations of anti-Semitism that have been directed against President Chavez and his government have appeared, for the most part, in the press releases and articles of organizations and media outlets based outside of Venezuela.  These accusations often refer to President Chavez’ strong condemnation of Israel’s military actions in Gaza without taking into account accompanying statements making clear that the Venezuelan government unequivocally rejects anti-Semitic behavior and actions.  The accusations also focus on an incident earlier this year in which a Caracas synagogue was broken into and vandalized.  Often unreported is the fact that a police investigation revealed that the primary motivation for the break-in was theft.

March 2, 2009

State Department’s Report on Venezuela “Plagued with Lies”

On Thursday, the Venezuelan and Bolivian governments firmly condemned the U.S. State Department’s report on Human Rights practices in their respective countries shortly after its release yesterday. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro was quoted by AP as stating that the report’s allegations are “plagued with lies,” while Bolivia’s Vice Minister Sacha Llorenti said that the report is “a gross simplification of the national reality that is politically motivated.” He also suggested that the U.S. lacked moral authority to raise human rights concerns.

The AP reports that before dawn on Thursday, a small explosive was thrown at a Jewish community center in Caracas. Nobody was injured in the attack, but the explosion damaged the doors to the center and a nearby vehicle. The event sparked fears of rising anti-Semitism in Venezuela as it was the second attack on a Jewish center this year. Reuters reports that authorities have already begun an investigation into the incident. AP quotes an international source – Sergio Widder of Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center as stating that “This is outrageous, it’s turning into an escalation.” It should be noted that the Venezuelan government forcefully denounced the vandalizing of a Caracas synagogue earlier this year, and a police investigation revealed that the perpetrators’ principal motivation was robbery and not anti-Semitism.

Reuters reports that Argentina has summoned the U.S. Ambassador in Argentina, and has demanded an explanation regarding CIA Director Leon Panetta’s comment on Wednesday that Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela could be pushed into instability by the global economic crisis. Argentina’s Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana called the comments “unfounded and irresponsible, especially from an agency that has a sad history of meddling in the affairs of countries in the region.”

Bloomberg reports that Venezuela’s economy grew at its’ slowest pace since 2003 in the fourth quarter of 2008, expanding 3.2 percent amidst a plunge in the country’s oil revenues. The AP reports that Venezuela’s Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said Thursday that Venezuela’s economic outlook for 2009 is stable despite the continued lull in oil prices.

Finally, an opinion piece in the Sun-Sentinel urges Venezuelan expatriates living in Florida to ponder the reasons why President Chavez remains so popular – with special attention given to his government’s social programs dedicated to ending poverty. The author reminds readers of the disastrous political past, which in 1993 led to riots, high inflation, two failed military coups, and the impeachment of then President Carlos Andres Perez. While the author is not a Chavez supporter, he states that “much of this dissatisfaction with Venezuela’s old political elite fueled Chávez’s rise to power.”

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 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.

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