VIO News Blog

April 29, 2009

Rosales Hides Behind Right-Wing Friends

El Universal reports that the Peruvian government has sent conciliatory signals to Venezuela despite its decision to offer asylum to opposition politician Manuel Rosales who faces charges of corruption in the Venezuelan courts. While the Venezuelan foreign ministry recalled its ambassador in Lima and stated that the relationship with the Andean nation was under “evaluation”, Peru has maintained its ambassador in Caracas. Peruvian President Alan Garcia declared that his government had “a position of friendship with the Venezuelan government” but also had a policy of providing “shelter to whomever feels threatened.” German Saltron, Venezuela’s representative to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, contested the notion that Peru’s offer of asylum was based on “humanitarian reasons”, signaling President Garcia’s “political and ideological affinity” with Rosales and his alleged long-standing friendship with opposition leader Carlos Andres Perez.

On Tuesday, 17 individuals were arrested in Curacao for their alleged involvement in an international drug ring that provided financial support to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to a statement released by Dutch Authorities, the arrests were carried out thanks to a coordinated operation involving police and judicial organisms from Curacao, the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

Also on Tuesday, ex President Jimmy Carter announced that he would be meeting with the Presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru over the coming days.

The AP reports that Iran’s defense minister has held talks with his Venezuelan counterpart in Caracas. The Iranian official told Iran’s state media that his country was developing a long-term cooperation plan with Venezuela; however, Venezuelan officials declined to make any comments regarding the ongoing talks.

In economic news, Dow Jones reports that the value of the Bolivar has strengthened against the dollar in Venezuela’s parallel market as a result PDVSA’s announcement of plans to emit several billion dollars worth of dollar-denominated debt. Meanwhile, President Chavez approved the emission of 12 billion bolivars ($4.8 billion) in treasury notes in order to cover the budgetary gap generated by lower oil prices. The National Assembly has authorized the selling of up to $15.8 billion in local treasury bonds before the year’s end.

Finally, on Tuesday Venezuela’s state oil company announced that the round of bidding on three projects to develop the heavy-oil fields in the Orinoco basin has been delayed three months. The company will announce the bidding results on August 14th rather than May 7 as had been originally announced.

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 4, 2009

Venezuelan Government Announces Cabinet and Ministry Changes

Reuters reported yesterday that President Hugo Chavez reshuffled his cabinet and merged the housing ministry and social protection ministry into other ministries, to reduce government spending in the backdrop of continued low oil prices. The Wall Street Journal posted a statement by the Venezuelan government which said that “These structural movements…are aimed at boosting the dynamics for making the state’s administration more efficient for the construction of the collective welfare and interest.”

The President of Venezuela’s state oil company, Rafael Ramirez, said that PDVSA will cut costs by 40% in order to strengthen the company’s economic position as it deals with low oil prices and the impact of the global financial crisis. AP reports that the company will renegotiate contracts with oil services firms in order to lower costs.

The Wall Street Journal falsely reports that “for years, Mr. Chávez has been battling private food manufacturers and farmers for periodic shortages of foods ranging from chickens to coffee.” However, the Venezuelan government has mainly accused food processors and distributors, not farmers, of hoarding food and averting price controls. The article also erroneously states that “last weekend, Mr. Chávez announced the Venezuelan government would take over the country’s rice mills.” President Chavez merely stated that private rice processors who flout price controls and follow through with their threat to paralyze production could face expropriation.

An article in the Toronto Globe and Mail argues that President Chavez is reversing course on resource nationalism by inviting oil companies to participate in the development of the oil-rich Orinoco. However, the Venezuelan government has been soliciting bids from foreign oil companies for the development of the Orinoco fields since the summer of 2008, when oil prices had skyrocketed. The Chavez government has always welcomed partnerships in oil exploration and production, provided that Venezuela remains a majority stakeholder and that agreements respect the country’s sovereignty.

Finally, the Latin America Herald Tribune reports on Venezuela’s reaction to a statement made by Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos. On Sunday, Mr. Santos defended Colombia’s cross-border raid on guerrillas in Ecuador earlier last year, terming it a “right to legitimate defense.” Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said that Santos’ statement represents “a threat to the stability and sovereignty of the countries of the region,” and that the “arrogant attitude of Minister Santos is abominable.”

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 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 3, 2009

Venezuelans Celebrate 10 Years of Revolution

Yesterday, President Chavez again expressed hope for better relations between Venezuela and the U.S. and vowed to accept any result in the February 15th referendum, saying: “If we lose, we lose.”

The comments were made in an interview with CNN on the occasion of his tenth anniversary in elected office. Chavez welcomed talks with Obama, saying “I wish we could restore relations to the same level we had with President Clinton.” He questioned the ability of the U.S. to reduce its high levels of oil consumption,” and highlighted the dense economic ties between the U.S. and Venezuela: “We employ thousands of workers in the United States… We give aid to hundreds of thousands of poor families in the United States with our heating oil program.”

Crowds in Caracas yesterday cheered the anniversary of Chavez’s first swearing-in (see image above). AFP reports that, then years later, the leader maintains 57 percent approval ratings. Voters will decide in less than two weeks whether or not to allow Chavez chance to compete for a third term. According to the rector of the Central University of Venezuela: “There have been errors and inefficiency in these 10 years but also positive changes for the country that should not be reversed.”

Caracas also hosted a summit of the regional group ALBA yesterday. In attendance were leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominica, and Cuba. The AP reports that the countries agreed to create another joint fund  to help boost agricultural production and offset high food prices.

Finally, in economic news, Reuters reports that Venezuelan officials  have no plans to devalue the currency or raise taxes at home. Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg, Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said yesterday that Venezuela reduced its combined foreign and domestic debt last year by $150 million to reach an amount of $43 billion. This makes the debt equal to just 13.5 percent of GDP, a very strong ratio compared Venezuela’s past figures as well as current ones in the US and UK.

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.

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 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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