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.

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April 20, 2009

Respect and Better Relations between Venezuela and the US

On Friday and Saturday, President Chavez and President Obama exchanged warm handshakes and chatted several times during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Chavez gave Obama the book “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. On Sunday, President Obama described his several brief meetings with President Chavez over the weekend as good steps, the Washington Times reports.

President Chavez also announced, at the end of the summit on Saturday, that he will send a new Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S. – Roy Chaderton, who is currently Venezuela’s ambassador to the Organization of American States. On Sunday, the U.S. State Department said that it would work towards sending an ambassador to Caracas, following a dialogue between President Chavez and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, AFP reports.

President Obama received sharp rebuke from several Republican politicians for his amicable meeting with Chavez, Chicago Tribune reports. Obama dismissed such concerns, saying the 2008 presidential campaign proved that American voters want engagement. “The American people didn’t buy it,” Obama said, referring to the argument that U.S. engagement towards foreign leaders could be perceived as “weakness.” He added “there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it, because it doesn’t make sense.”

Finally, on Sunday, President Chavez announced the creation of a new elite military unit, and the acquisition of surface-to-air missiles from Russia, AP reports. Chavez stated “We don’t want wars with anyone, but we’re obligated to equip ourselves and have a military that is increasingly dedicated to the country.”

March 12, 2009

Venezuela Makes Room for more Housing

After news last week that a Coca-Cola bottler in Caracas would be required to relocate to make room for housing for the poor, El Universal reports that President Chavez explains: “We are always looking for a friendly arrangement. But we are required to always look everywhere for available space” for housing. Government officials and representatives of Coca-Cola in Venezuela will reportedly meet today. In comments that were not reported in the U.S., Chavez said yesterday that all companies must simply respect the law, and that his policies are concerned with guaranteeing social justice and protecting the national interest.

The state oil company PDVSA will seek to cut costs by 40%, UPI reports. To do this, it plans to revise contracts with service companies that charge high prices. With regard to state spending, Chavez said that Venezuela is not unlikely to face “serious hardships” due to the world economic crisis, but that “the revolution will not fall to pieces.” Meanwhile, AFP reports that oil futures rose slightly today.

In regional news, a Guardian column argues that the credibility of the US state department’s annual human rights report is crumbling. Serious questions about the report’s accuracy, as well as the moral authority of the U.S. to rate other nations, have come from many countries including Venezuela and China. Likewise, human rights groups with strong ties to Washington, such as Human Rights Watch, have come under increased scrutiny. Scholars contested a Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela last year, saying it lacked “minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility.”

Venezuela beat the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic last night, moving on to the second round of the tournament. Next, they play the Netherlands on Saturday.

March 11, 2009

Venezuela Destroys Drug Lab near Colombian Border

Venezuela has made more anti-drug progress, destroying clandestine cocaine labs along the border with Colombia and seizing nearly 1,000 pounds of the substance, according to the AP. National Guard troops demolished seven labs located less than a mile from the border with Colombia. EFE quotes Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami, who said the move showed “our determination and readiness to continue making progress in the head-on fight against drug trafficking.”

El Aissami also responded to the most recent U.S. State Department drug report — the last one penned by the Bush administration — which again claimed that Venezuela is not doing enough to fight drugs. “We are victims of drug trafficking because we are in between the biggest drug-producing country (Colombia) and the main drug consumer, but that report still tries to blame us. But with these results we show who is really lying,” he said.

In a rare article today, the Guardian Weekly offers the personal story of one Venezuelan woman who benefits from the government-funded social program Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Neighborhood). At first, Yovita Vera says, It was hard to believe that I had the power to do something positive for myself and my family.” But with a small interest-free loan and training from Madres del Barrio, she opened a textile cooperative that became “a big success.” Vera says: “I feel like a door has been opened for us and we have a chance to make a success of our lives.” Madres del Barrio is one of over two dozen social missions that have helped reduce poverty in Venezuela by about half.

In economic news, the Financial Times reports that Chevron is one of several foreign private firms bidding on Orinoco Belt oil projects. A Chevron official is quoted as saying that Venezuela now needs the investment due to lowered oil prices, however, the bidding process had been planned since oil was at its peak. Private investment maintained a role, albeit a smaller one, in the Orinoco reserves when they were brought under the country’s nationalization plan in 2007.

Finally, Venezuela has made it to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. After defeating Italy yesterday after scoring four home runs in a single inning, the Venezuelan team plays the U.S. again today.

March 10, 2009

Venezuela Refutes State Department Report on Drugs

The Washington Times reports on the last U.S. State Department drug report under the Bush administration, issued a couple of weeks ago, which leveled accusations against three key government officials in Venezuela. The men are Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, an aide to President Chavez, and high-level anti-drug officials Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva. Venezuelan officials have refuted this and other aspects of the report as politicized, and say its findings are false and contradict those of other studies. “The biggest support for narco-trafficking comes from the nation of the north,” Chavez said.

Coca-Cola will likely cooperate with a request by President Chavez to relocate a Caracas bottling plant and turn over the site to the impoverished local community, the AP reports. This is according to a statement released yesterday, which said Coca-Cola expects the government can “bring about proposals and alternatives that benefit everyone. The Financial Times reports that Chavez said Sunday that the land is needed for housing, but suggests that the leader is “targeting” Coke as part of an “assault” on the private sector. Despite what the Times states, “expropriations” are not the norm in Venezuela, where the government follows laws requiring compensate private owners for their assets.

In other economic news, Reuters reports that the Venezuelan government clarified plans to create a Venezuelan Aluminum Corp to unify the sector. That institution will coordinate policy among different aluminum producers, but will not merge them. Japan owns 20 percent of one of the country’s main aluminum plants, Venalum.

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 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 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 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.

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