VIO News Blog

May 5, 2009

Thousands of Marches Celebrate May Day in Caracas

On Sunday, a Venezuelan military helicopter crashed near the border with Colombia killing a civilian and eighteen soldiers, including a brigadier general.  President Hugo Chavez announced that the Russian-made MI-17 helicopter crashed in the mountainous El Capote region while patrolling the 1400 mile border between Venezuela and Colombia. Referring to the latest State Department report on terrorism, Chavez said, “they say that we don’t patrol the border.  How many lives has Colombia’s conflict cost us Venezuelans?”

On May 1st thousands of Venezuelans marched throughout Venezuela to celebrate International Workers’ Day.  In Caracas, as has been the case for the last 8 years, two marches took place simultaneously along different routes.  The larger of the two marches was made up of pro-government unions while the smaller march was convened by the Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation, a union linked to the opposition party Accion Democratica whose past leadership supported the 2002 coup against Chavez.  A crowd of opposition marchers was confronted with tear gas by Caracas police and National Guard forces after trying to pass through a police barricade.

Also on May 1st, President Chavez strongly rejected the latest State Department report on terrorism that criticizes his government for alleged “sympathy” with the FARC rebel group in Colombia.  He also expressed skepticism regarding President Obama’s agenda of “change” for relations with Latin America, signaling that “if President Obama does not dismantle this savage blockade of the Cuban people, then it is all a lie, it will all be a great farce.”  On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a group of foreign service officers that the Bush Administration’s attempts to isolate Venezuela and Bolivia “didn’t work” and that the new administration would engage in a more constructive approach.

An Op-ed in the Sunday Washington Post, written by Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco, recognizes that Venezuela has “competitive elections and independent political parties, media outlets, labor unions and civil society organizations.”   However, Vivanco also alleges that the Chavez government has implemented “authoritarian policies” that “undermined democratic institutions” which should be met with declarations of “concern” by the Obama Administration.  It should be noted that Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Venezuela received extensive criticism from a group of US academics that questioned the report’s methodology.

Finally, a Washington Post editorial entitled “Beleaguered Mexico” falsely asserts that President Chavez backed a left-wing candidate during Mexico’s 2006 presidential election.  The Post’ editors, in keeping with their policy of extreme bias towards the Venezuelan government, reproduce a baseless claim that was first propagated by right-wing sectors of the Mexican media during the 2006 campaign.

March 31, 2009

Chavez Meets with Arab Leaders in Qatar

At a summit of Arab and South American leaders in Qatar, President Chavez appealed to oil-producing states to support the creation of a petroleum-backed currency, AP reports. Chavez also supported the Arab League’s declaration Monday to reject the International Criminal Court charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur. Chavez noted the hypocrisy of the ICC, saying “Why don’t they order the capture of (former President George W.) Bush? Or the president of Israel?”

In an interview with the pan-Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, Chavez said there were no plans to restore relations with Israel, according to the AP. He added that he would only reconsider if Israel’s leaders cease being a “genocidal elite subordinated to the United States.”

Finally, Central American leaders met yesterday in Costa Rica with Vice President Joe Biden and urged Washington to slow deportations of Central Americans. According to the AP, Biden said there would be no immediate response but asked the group to be patient and assured them that the US would put together a policy with the region, not for the region.  El Salvador’s President-elect, Mauricio Funes, was present and told reporters that while his party has close ties with Chavez, “that does not mean my foreign policy will be subordinated to Chavez.”

March 16, 2009

Venezuela to Manage National Transportation Hubs

President Hugo Chavez dispatched the Navy to Venezuela’s seaports yesterday, after elected lawmakers in the National Assembly voted to bring the country’s transportation hubs under federal management. The AP reports that President Chavez said the move is aimed at improving Venezuela’s national security, including counter-narcotics efforts.

A Russian Air Force chief said Saturday that President Chavez offered an island off the coast of Venezuela for use as a temporary base for Russia’s strategic bombers. Yesterday, though, Chavez made clear that there would be no foreign bases on Venezuelan soil, but that he had told Russian President Medvedev that his country’s strategic aviation was welcome to “make a stop in Venezuela.” While much media attention has surrounded Russia’s improved ties with Venezuela, its diplomacy with other nations including regional heavyweight Brazil have been downplayed.

A commentary in the Guardian suggests that, for Chavez, “it was easy to score points, both at home and abroad, by bashing President Bush,” but that this tactic has proved difficult with President Obama, who is popular in Latin America. However, President Chavez does not seek an antagonistic relationship with Washington. In fact, he has frequently said that he welcomes talks with the Obama administration, and believes bilateral ties could improve. Any recent criticisms directed at Washington have consistently been about U.S. foreign policy.

In a Newsweek article by Jorge Castaneda, the author makes the absurd speculation that Cuban President Raul Castro’s decision to remove two senior Cuban politicians from office was due to their plotting to overthrow him, and that such a move was supported by President Chavez of Venezuela. No supporting evidence is provided.

Also in regional news, Mauricio Funes, the moderate leftist and FMLN candidate in El Salvador’s presidential race, won the election with 51.3% of the vote. The victory breaks a 20-year grip on power by the country’s right-wing Arena party, whose founder was associated with some of the most repressive elements in the country’s U.S.-backed civil war. Funes, whose FMLN party has been in the political arena since a 1992 peace agreement, pledged to work toward Central American integration as well as strengthen ties with the U.S.

March 13, 2009

Venezuelan Law Guarantees Essential Public Services

Another drug-related arrest was made in Venezuela yesterday, according to the AP. A U.S. man was detained in Monagas state for “cooperating in the crime of drug trafficking,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement.

Venezuela’s National Assembly voted yesterday to modify the Law on Decentralization to allow federal jurisdiction over the maintenance and management of the country’s airports and highways. The BBC reports that, in debates on the issue, one lawmaker said the measure would “guarantee essential public services.”

The Economist wrongly reports that a Cargill rice factory in Venezuela was “seized.” This has not occurred, despite the fact that President Chavez made the suggestion last week in a speech. The Law on Food Security stipulates that a certain proportion of agricultural goods in Venezuela must be subject to the price controls that rein in the cost of basic foodstuffs, and producers that do not follow the law have come under scrutiny. The Economist does not report that government officials have been in talks with Polar and other food distributors to ensure that they comply.

In international news, sources report that Brazilian President Lula da Silva will discuss Venezuela at a meeting with President Obama in Washington tomorrow. The AP reports that da Silva said “I’m going to ask that the U.S. take a different view of Latin America. We’re a democratic, peaceful continent, and the U.S. has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime.” In addition to U.S.-Latin American relations, other top issues on the leaders’ agenda are biofuels, the global financial crisis.

Oil futures rose to $48 per barrel yesterday ahead of an OPEC meeting this weekend. Venezuela and China will build a joint refinery this year in Guangdong province that Bloomberg says will “reinforce their energy ties.”

Finally, Venezuela and Mexico signed a cooperation agreement on music education yesterday. Mexican students will visit Venezuelan Youth and Child Orchestras in the coming months. Mexico’s education minister said “the promotion of music in Mexico is part of a plan to improve education and culture as a way to prevent crimes.”

March 2, 2009

Venezuela has taken Unprecedented Steps to Boost Agricultural Productivity

On Thursday, the representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Venezuela, Francisco Arias Milla, said that “there is a group of countries, including Venezuela, that is better prepared to confront this crisis and whatever other crisis that may come,” adding that “this is due to the institutionalization of food security in the region.” The Chavez government has taken unprecedented steps to boost agricultural productivity in Venezuela, resulting in the country’s corn production increasing by 205%, rice by 94%, sugar by 13%, and milk by 11% over the last decade, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Agriculture.

President Chavez on Saturday rejected a U.S. State Department report that alleges that drug trafficking is soaring in Venezuela, the AP reports. The report, which covers global anti-drug efforts in 2008, was prepared during the final months of the Bush presidency, but was approved and presented by the Clinton State Department. “Is there really a new government in the United States, or is Bush still in charge?” Chavez told supporters in a poor Caracas neighborhood. Although not reflected in the State Department report, Venezuela’s anti-drug efforts have been widely documented. Venezuela is now the country with the fourth largest seizures of cocaine in the world, and in 2008, Venezuelan authorities destroyed over 220 illicit landing strips used by suspected drug runners.

The AFP reports that President Chavez stated he will be attending the April 17-19th Summit of the Americas to “defend the integration of the Caribbean and Latin America and demand that the empire Obama leads lift its blockade of Cuba, abide by UN resolutions and condemns Israel.” Chavez said he was unconcerned with whether he would meet Obama there or not.

Bloomberg reports that on Saturday, President Chavez ordered troops to occupy some rice processing facilities in the country due to their failure to market rice at the regulated price set by the government. The seizure of Arroz Primor rice mill, owned by Empresas Polar SA, will last three months according to El Nacional. Chavez said that rice processors have been buying crops from local farmers but have refused to sell white rice at the controlled price. Instead, they have added colors and artificial flavors to evade these controls. “They’ve refused 100 times to process the typical rice that Venezuelans eat,” Chavez said yesterday during his “Alo Presidente” program on state television. “I’m tired of it and if they don’t take me seriously I’ll expropriate the plants and turn them into social property from private property.”  Chavez also announced that if the companies processing rice followed through with their threat to paralyze production, they could end up facing nationalization.

An article in the Miami Herald, argues that Venezuela faces many problems which are only growing. The article discusses the current financial crisis and the impact of continued low oil prices on government expenditures and debt payments. While Venezuela’s Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez has acknowledged the difficult economic outlook, it should be noted that Venezuela has over $70 billion in reserves which can help buffer the economy in the event of a protracted global economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal argues that the collapse of a Venezuelan bank owned by R. Allen Stanford is causing concern that the economy could be threatened if other banks in the country also experience massive capital flight. However, there is no evidence that the failure of Stanford’s bank (that represents only a small proportion of total deposits in Venezuela) has generated uncertainty in the Venezuelan banking system as a whole, and the speculation is largely based on rumors. The Venezuelan government has guaranteed the deposits of Stanford Bank and says it will sell the bank.

Finally, on Friday, President Chavez said Venezuela should bring to justice those responsible in the brutal repression of the Caracazo riots that took place in major urban centers throughout the country 20 years ago. Chavez blamed the government in power at the time and said Venezuela “should make greater efforts to search for justice.” It is believed that anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand people were killed in the riots. “I’m asking them to review the whole thing.” President Chavez also urged the U.S. to extradite former president Carlos Andres Perez in order for him to be brought to justice for his role in the repression.

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 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 5, 2009

Venezuelan Officials Hold Productive Dialogue with Jewish Community Leaders

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro met with leaders of the Jewish community on Wednesday to discuss the attack against a Caracas synagogue that took place on the night of January 30th.  After this meeting, Abraham Levy, president of the Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela, expressed satisfaction with the government’s response to the attack.  According to Bloomberg, Levy told reporters that the government’s condemnation of the incident “was very strong.”  Meanwhile, Maduro called on “those that profess their faith in this religion to turn a deaf ear to the campaign that’s trying to politically manipulate an act that we condemn.” AFP quotes Maduro adding “we’ll capture [the perpetrators of the attack] and we’ll punish them with the full weight of the law, whoever they are.”

President Chavez, who over the last few days has also repeatedly condemned the incident, stated on Wednesday that his government  “rejects any attack against any temple of the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, or any other faith.”

AFP reports on a Congressional hearing on US relations with Latin America that took place on Wednesday with a series of “experts”.  Despite the fact that President Chavez has repeatedly expressed his hope that his government’s relations with Washington will improve under the Obama Administration, polling expert Sergio Bendixen told Congressional members and staff that Venezuela and other left-wing Latin American governments “are not friends”  as they “have worked to diminish (US) power” in Latin America.

Bloomberg reports that the Venezuelan labor union Fedepetrol announced that it took control of four oil rigs owned and operated by Helmerich & Payne Inc. A spokesman for the Tulsa-based company denied this and said that they were planning on moving the rigs out of the oil fields following a payment dispute with state oil company PDVSA. “Labor unions appear to be pleading for continuity of operations on all of the company’s rigs in Venezuela,” Helmerich said today in its statement. “The company will continue to work with PDVSA to resolve pending receivable collections and potentially resume operations under new contracts with rigs that are currently idle.”

Finally, the Associated Press reports that Venezuela’s annual inflation eased slightly in January to 30.7 percent. The article mentions that this inflation rate is the highest in Latin America but fails to note that Venezuela has also seen the strongest economic growth in the region over the past few years.

January 21, 2009

Chavez Looks Forward to New Views, Respect from Washington

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

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

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

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

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

January 12, 2009

Venezuela Sends Heating Oil to US, Medicine to Gaza

“No, it was never suspended,” President Chavez said Saturday in reference to Venezuela’s home heating oil assistance program in the U.S. through Citgo. The aid effort is in its fourth year, and has grown to reach about a quarter of a million poor families. The AP reports that the Venezuelan leader finally weighed in to counter those who claimed the aid was being cut off, saying, “they built this analysis on a lie.”

Another issue in the media refuted by officials over the weekend was that of oil industry layoffs. The AP reports that anti-Chavez labor unionists had claimed that Venezuela’s PDVSA dismissed 4,000 contract workers due to output cuts, but on Friday, the company’s vice president dismissed the rumors. Also in economic news, the AP states that oil output cuts mandated by OPEC are contributing to slowed economic growth in Venezuela, but fails to mention that the longer term intent of those cuts is to adjust to lowered demand and move toward more stable prices. Venezuela’s gross domestic product grew by 8.4 percent in 2007 and 4.8 percent in 2008. Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez indicated last week that the government is developing new measures to address economic downturn, but will not devalue the currency or impose new taxes.

Venezuela is sending 12.5 metric tons of medicine to the Gaza strip via Egypt, according to the latest AP report. “It is the least we can do,” President Chavez said yesterday. The AP states that Chavez “has forged strong ties with numerous Arab nations,” forgetting that Venezuela’s ties with the Middle East go back at least to the 1960s when OPEC was formed.

Chavez spoke yesterday of suspicions that a U.S. Embassy official attended a meeting of opposition leaders in Puerto Rico, sources report. “If this is proven,” he said, the diplomat would be expelled. In his televised address, Chavez recalled the U.S. backing enjoyed by Venezuela’s last dictatorship, which ended in 1958, and the U.S. role in negotiating a subsequent failed power-sharing pact between two political parties.

Finally, in other international news, the Financial Times proclaims: “Washington’s clout in Latin America is waning.” This refers chiefly to the economy, and the rising importance of other nations such as China and Russia. The Times calls it a tough “battle for influence.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reports on Venezuela’s strengthened economic and military ties with China.

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