VIO News Blog

December 19, 2008

More than Four Million Venezuelan Citizens Sign Petition to Reelect Chavez

Nearly 4.8 million signatures supporting a constitutional amendment to end presidential term limits were turned over to Venezuela’s National Assembly yesterday, according to Bloomberg. This was a symbolic gesture from members of the pro-Chavez United Socialist Party of Venezuela. After a first round of debates, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a bid to hold a national referendum on the amendment. The AP reports that one Congresswoman called this an expression of “the voice of the people.”

A second round of debates in the National Assembly is set to take place next month. The BBC reports that the issue of indefinite reelection “was rejected in a referendum last year,” however, it was not singled out in this way. The referendum was regarding a package of 69 different constitutional reforms.

A Washington Post editorial opposing an amendment makes the blatantly false claim that elections in Venezuela are not free and fair. All international observers have verified the transparency of Venezuela’s democratic elections, including the OAS, the EU, the Carter Center, the NAACP, and the National Lawyer’s Guild. The Post jettisons these official findings in favor of one unsubstantiated report from the Miami Herald last week that claimed pro-Chavez candidates tried to bribe voters with free refrigerators in a state where they lost. Contrary to what the Post writes, President Chavez conceded defeat in the last referendum on constitutional reforms quickly and calmly, with no pressure from the military. The official results of that referendum have indeed been released by the country’s independent National Electoral Council.

In economic news, Venezuela’s Central Bank announced yesterday that it seeks to cut inflation by half in 2009. The AP reports that Director Armando Leon said that there are no plans to devalue the currency, and that the country is fairly insulated from the world economic crisis, with $37 billion in international reserves. The Economist reports on alternative currencies that are used in some parts of Venezuela. Allowed under the constitution, these currencies foster increased commercial exchange in local markets.

Finally, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown echoed the sentiments of OPEC countries yesterday by emphasizing the need for oil price stability. According to the AFP, Brown said: “volatility is in no-one’s interest. Wild fluctuations in market prices harm nations all around the world, they damage producers and consumers alike.”

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December 12, 2008

United Socialist Party of Venezuela Begins Presidential Referendum Process

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) began collecting signatures yesterday in support of a national referendum on presidential term limits. It will hand the list over to the National Assembly next Thursday, according to Venezuelanalysis, when lawmakers are scheduled to begin debating the measure. The AP does not mention the PSUV, wrongly attributing the signature collection campaign to President Chavez himself. It notes that Chavez expressed in a speech that allowing him to run for election again is “a guarantee of peace.”

Sources report that Manuel Rosales, the former Zulia governor and new mayor of Maracaibo who lost to Chavez in the last presidential race, was charged with illicit enrichment by prosecutors yesterday. The AP, Reuters, and the AFP quote liberally from statements made by Rosales at a press conference after his indictment for corruption, for which he could face three to ten years in jail. Rosales called it “a terrorist trial,” and joked about being accused of assassinating JFK.

An op-ed in the Guardian by former AP Venezuela correspondent Bart Jones suggests that President Chavez “is sure to give more ammunition to his critics” during his bid for reelection. He also says, though, that unlike other politicians in Venezuela including opposition members involved in the 2002 coup, “Chávez has generally remained within the bounds of democracy.”

On the economy, the Miami Herald reports that Venezuela’s 2009 budget has been approved by the National Assembly. Spending is up by 22 percent, despite decreased oil revenues. The Herald deems the budget “optimistic.” However, finance experts in Venezuela have pointed out the country’s foreign currency reserves are high, and that by boosting official spending and reducing discretionary spending, the budget shows increased transparency.

Venezuela is upping its natural gas production with the help of foreign partners, according to Bloomberg. Firms with a minority stake in the first two natural gas plants include Chevron, Mitsubishi, Energia Argentina, and Galp of Portugal. Finally, in oil news, Reuters reports that 19 companies are bidding for contracts in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt projects.

December 8, 2008

Venezuelan Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of President Chavez

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 2008

Mayor of Caracas Borough Sworn In

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

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

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

December 4, 2008

After Venezuela’s Regional Elections, Buzz Continues

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

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2008

OAS: Peaceful, Exemplary Elections Reflect Venezuela’s Democratic Maturity

Despite the fact that Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 77 percent of governorships and 81 percent of mayorships in Sundays elections, which were deemed free and fair by observers, news reports emphasize opposition victories and persist in calling the President an “authoritarian” and “strongman.” Only Time Magazine offers a different perspective, saying “his acceptance of Sunday’s results preserved his democratic bona fides.” This sentiment was expressed by Jose Miguel Insulza (pictured here), Secretary General of the OAS, which has observed elections in Venezuela. Insulza is quoted in the Caracas newspaper El Universal, saying that the “peaceful, exemplary” elections reflected “maturity that strengthens democratic institutions.”

A Washington Post editorial today claims that President Chavez had threatened not to recognize opposition victories, which is false. In fact, he said before and during voting, “We are prepared to recognize any result.” In a speech after votes were counted, Chavez stated: “we are consulting the people, the voice of the nation. We have to acknowledge what they say… we will respect the will of the majority.”

A New York Times editorial accuses President Chavez of “authoritarianism and incompetence” and attempts to “skew the elections.” Chavez, though, has one of the highest approval ratings of any elected leader in the hemisphere, and citizens in Venezuela show rates of satisfaction with democracy that are far above average for Latin America. The Times states that the disqualification of candidates facing corruption charges ahead of elections was carried out by a “government watchdog,” when in fact it was done by elected leaders in Congress. It also claims that more than 50 percent of Venezuela’s population will now be under opposition leadership, when in fact that number is 43.5 percent. The Wall Street Journal makes the same error today.

The Miami Herald reports that President Chavez will seek a referendum to remove term limits, allowing him to run in elections again in 2012. To make this case, the paper quotes the same opposition pollster that appears in many stories today, Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis. The president of Datanalisis has publicly advocated the assassination of Chavez, though this does not seem to have affected its credibility in the U.S. — the firm is treated as an “independent” source by the AP, Washington Post, L.A. Times, and Christian Science Monitor.

In other news today, Venezuela and Russia will soon conduct joint military exercises. AFP reports that President Chavez said in a news conference yesterday: “They’re not a provocation but an exchange” between “two free, sovereign countries that are getting closer. We carried out maneuvers with Brazil recently, with France, with the Netherlands and now with Russia.” An official from Holland is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor is quoted as saying: “The Dutch point of view is that Venezuela is entitled … to have military exercises with befriended nations.” Mainstream media coverage today, however, suggests that this is not likely the U.S. point of view.

November 24, 2008

Venezuela Sets New Record for Voter Turnout

Venezuela set a new record for voter turnout in regional elections yesterday (65%), and the results show big wins by pro-government PSUV candidates. Lines were long and the polls stayed open late to accommodate voters. Governorships in 17 of 22 states already counted went to the PSUV, while opposition candidates prevailed in three states — Nueva Esparta, Zulia, and Miranda. In Caracas, the metropolitan mayorship went to the opposition’s Antonio Ledezma over former education minister Aristobulo Izturiz. The Los Angeles Times reports that President Chavez said during voting, “We are prepared to recognize any result” and “I learned to manage my defeats years ago.” According to the Washington Post, he reacted to the PSUV’s majority victory by saying: “Today, the people of Venezuela have spoken. Today’s victory is Venezuela’s. The democratic path has been ratified.”

Most of the news coverage portrays yesterday’s elections as an affirmation of continued support for the Chavez government in Venezuela, but with some signs that opposition may be gaining ground. It is not pointed out however that the last time the opposition participated fully in regional elections, back in 2000, they won 7 states, compared to 5 or 6 now.

This eleventh electoral test in a decade confirms the commitment of the country to democracy. While most sources recognize this fact, others like the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times persist in claiming that there has been fraud. The Tribune takes issue with disqualifications that barred candidates under investigation for corruption from running in elections. This law, though, was not the creation of the President or the CNE, but rather was passed by the National Assembly in 2001. The Supreme Court upheld the law in two separate tests, most recently this year.

A Washington Times column makes similar misstatements about the disqualifications, and also wrongly states that voting in Venezuela is open to manipulation. On the contrary, the electronic voting machines used there have been praised as among the most accurate and advanced in the world. International electoral missions have confirmed this fact repeatedly, and consistently deem voting processes free and fair. The Washington Times calls Venezuela a “police state,” when only one week ago, an opposition leader was quoted by Reuters as stating patently: “this is not a police state.”

Finally, in other news, AFP reports that Russian warships will arrive in Venezuela tomorrow for joint maneuvers. The exercises start December 1st, according to the AP. Sources suggest that new Venezuela-Russia ties are proof of a supposed “anti-U.S.” trend, and ignore the fact that Russia’s President met President Bush last week. They also fail to mention that Venezuela’s purchases of military equipment from Russia are the result of an embargo on sales by the U.S. The New York Times reports on a Brookings Institute paper regarding Latin America and President-elect Obama. It recommends lifting the blockade against Cuba and rethinking the unpopular war on drugs, and says relations with Venezuela could improve.

November 21, 2008

Chavez’s United Socialist Party Likely to Retain Most States in Sunday’s Elections

Sunday’s regional elections are top news today as campaigning ends in Venezuela and voters prepare to go to the polls for the 11th time in a decade. The AFP reports that the elections, in which citizens will choose 22 governors and 328 mayors,are a test of the popularity of the president. Chavez’s political party, the PSUV “will likely hold most states and cities, but might lose some posts.”

Several other sources today claim that Chavez’s popularity is slipping despite approval ratings of 60 percent and higher. The worst treatments come from the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the Miami Herald. The Post predicts that opposition candidates will governorships in 12 states or more in an article that takes a disparaging view of government supporters as mindless “worshipers.” Bloomberg and the Herald provide similarly biased accounts, both of which dismiss the Chavez government as “authoritarian.” This is despite the fact that elections in Venezuela have been deemed free and fair by all international observers. Venezuelans themselves showed a rate of satisfaction with how democracy functions in their country that is second highest in the region in the new poll by Latinobarometro.

A Miami Herald op-ed today says the opposition should “seize victory” against President Chavez, who is portrayed as an “authoritarian and antidemocratic leader who is clinging to power at all costs.” On the contrary, Chavez has altered policy to reflect the will of the people on several occasions, including last December after constitutional reforms did not pass in a national referendum. He has also pardoned political opponents, and revoked unpopular policies such as a national intelligence law and new school curricula.

An opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor provides a more measured approach to the political scene in Venezuela, raising the question of whether the country will move toward implementing socialism. It mentions, though, without citing examples, supposed new restrictions on civil liberties, free expression, and private property. Venezuela’s constitution guarantees protection of all of these rights, as well as many others that make the charter one of the most progressive in the world.

Finally, Venezuela’s economic cooperation with Vietnam is also in the news today. The AP reports that President Chavez and Vietnamese President Triet signed a $200 billion joint development fund to help build factories for lighbulbs and trucks. The countries also inked 15 cooperation deals, according to AFP.

November 20, 2008

Global Cooperation Abounds as Venezuela Reaches out to Africa and Asia

Reuters reported yesterday on the political scene in Venezuela ahead of Sunday’s elections. President Chavez, it states, is “still popular” with 60 percent approval and “polls show his party will likely hold onto a large majority of states even though the opposition could make some gains.” Chavez’s suggestion that he would pursue more policy changes if his PSUV political party emerges with sufficient support could mark a change from “slowed reforms” in response to the rejection of constitutional reforms by voters in a national referendum last December. One analyst said: “The stakes are high on both sides.”

World leaders are heading to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Peru this weekend. The leaders of Russia and Vietnam planned stops in Venezuela on either side of the meeting. Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet (pictured at right) discussed oil and gas ties with President Chavez yesterday, according to AFP. Dow Jones reports that PetroVietnam may invest $9 billion in oil production in Venezuela. Meanwhile, media buzz has surrounded Russian President Medvedev’s visit to Venezuela. Press accounts such as a Reuters article today deem this an attempt to “rile the U.S.” and revive Cold War-era politics, while downplaying the fact that Medvedev will also go to Brazil and Peru, and will likely meet with President Bush at the APEC meeting.

Venezuela’s expansion of relations with Africa continued yesterday with the announcement of a new cooperation deal with Zimbabwe. According to AFP, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister for Africa, Reinaldo Bolivar, emphasized the importance of “south-south cooperation.” Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s top rep in Brazil said: “Venezuela provides great assistance to our country through donations made through the World Food Program.” Agriculture has been a key area of cooperation for the countries.

Finally, in cultural news, two articles today feature the classical music conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose origins in Venezuela’s state-funded music program led him to global fame. The Washington Times deems Dudamel “better than the hype.” The L.A. Times reports that the music program, called “el sistema,” receives $29 million from the Venezuelan government each year. It teaches “the values of self-discipline and teamwork in service of social harmony.”

November 18, 2008

Venezuelans Satisfied with their Democracy

Venezuela will host a meeting for members of the regional cooperation agreements Petrocaribe and ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) next Wednesday, November 26th, according to El Universal. The session was announced as a counterpoint to the G-20 summit in Washington. President Morales of Bolivia said that the intention is “not to discuss the financial crisis, but how to enhance and complement our economies to serve our people.”

Immigrants in Venezuela, often hailing from neighboring Colombia, tend to support President Chavez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the Miami Herald reports today. The social program called “Mission Identity” is helping extend the benefits of citizenship to this sector. Critics say that it is a bid to gain votes ahead of regional elections this Sunday, but Mission Identity was founded in October 2003. One expert explained: “This is an effort to integrate into society Colombians who have been here for decades, and long after they would have been required to be [naturalized] by law.” According to UN estimates, there are over 200,000 Colombian asylum seekers in Venezuela. Government programs also provide refugees with job training and low-interest loans to help stimulate economic development.

Approval ratings for President Chavez remain steady at over fifty percent, though the leader is described as “increasingly unpopular” in the U.S. media. A Washington Post editorial today makes this claim. The editorial advises President-elect Obama not to speak with Chavez, although Obama has said that he would indeed seek dialogue. It wrongly states that Chavez, who has several electoral victories under his belt and has boosted Venezuela’s ties to many nations in Latin America and the world, is “grabbing the coattails” of Obama in order to earn popularity. The Times also deems unconstitutional a law that prohibits individuals from running for public office while they face corruption investigations. This point is not addressed in the Venezuelan charter, but has been upheld by the country’s Judiciary and electoral authority.

A New York Times editorial today urges free trade with Colombia and asserts that President Chavez uses anti-U.S. rhetoric to “distract attention” from so-called “autocratic policies” at home. The claim that Chavez is “anti-U.S.” ignores his overtures to the American people and hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-poverty assistance in the U.S. As the Post points out today, he congratulated Obama on his electoral win and said he anticipates better relations with the U.S. The Chavez administration has seen 11 electoral processes, certified as free and fair by all international observers. In a recent poll by Latinobarometro, Venezuelans expressed more satisfaction with democracy than citizens in any other country in the region besides Uruguay. Venezuelans were also by far the most likely to agree that voting is the best way to influence change.

Finally, an argument in favor of taking Venezuela seriously and improving relations appears in a George Mason University publication; it states that “U.S. officials should open their minds to a new relationship with Caracas.” Two other opinion pieces consider the effects of the financial crisis in Latin America. A Washington Post op-ed finds that the region is not well isolated from the crisis, while a ZNet op-ed views Latin America as less dependent on the U.S. and therefore less vulnerable to collapse.

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