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.

May 1, 2009

Chavez Reaffirms Neutrality Regarding Colombia’s Internal Conflict

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

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

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

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

April 22, 2009

Sometimes a Handshake is Just a Handshake

More articles are circulating regarding the several brief meetings between Presidents Chavez and Obama this past weekend. Reuters reports that President Obama received a sharp rebuke from several Republican politicians for these meetings. Obama dismissed their concerns by mentioning that 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.” The two countries have already begun talks on reinstating ambassadors.

The BBC reports that Venezuelan opposition leader and Mayor of Maracaibo, Manuel Rosales failed to appear in court on the first day of his trial on alleged illicit enrichment. Reuters reports that Manuel Rosales believes the trial is politically motivated and that he escaped from hiding and is now in Peru where he will seek political asylum.

A Boston Herald editorial asserts that the Summit of the Americas has “turned into a thug-fest, a showcase for the hemisphere’s bullies to express their contempt for their big, bad neighbor to the north.” The author of the piece fails to take into account the fact that these ‘thugs’ are actually democratically elected leaders of their respective countries, or that the hemisphere’s leaders interactions with Obama were cordial, if not friendly.

Finally, a letter to the editor in the Washington Times, argues that President Obama was correct in reaching out to President Chavez, adding that “It would ill serve our president and our people if Mr. Obama were to enter the world stage with preordained hatred and contempt for the leaders of nations with which we have been at odds in the past.”

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.”

April 17, 2009

Chavez Holds Out for Equality in the Americas

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that while no bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Chavez is scheduled during the Summit of the Americas, if Chavez were to approach the US President, it is likely he would agree to talk, CNN reports.

On Thursday, President Chavez said that Venezuela will vote against the Summit of the Americas declaration, arguing that it treats Latin America as subservient to the interests of the United States, AP reports. According to the Miami Herald, Chavez said of the declaration, that it was “as if time had not passed.”

At a meeting in Venezuela, of ALBA-member nations, President Chavez announced the creation of a new regional currency ‘Sucre,’ which he expects will enter into effect in 2010 as an electronic currency to facilitate trade between the member countries. The new regional currency will provide an alternative to the U.S. dollar frequently used for trade throughout the hemisphere. Chavez added that he hoped other nations in South and Central America would later also participate in using the currency.

An editorial in the Dallas News argues that President Obama should ignore Chavez and try to divide the alliance between Cuba and Venezuela, by opening up trade and travel to the island nation.

Finally, in regional news, Bolivian police in Santa Cruz said they foiled a plot to assassinate President Morales, and while attempting to arrest the suspects, a 30-minute gunbattle ensued, ending in the deaths of three suspects and the arrest of two others.

April 14, 2009

US Coast Guard Respects Venezuelan Sovereignty in Drug Bust

On Friday, President Chavez said he saw “good signals” from the U.S. after Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted for terrorism in Venezuela and Cuba, was charged in a U.S. court for lying about his involvement in the 1997 bombing of a Havana hotel. Chavez was also encouraged by the U.S. Coast Guard’s cooperation in a large cocaine bust involving a Venezuelan boat off the coast of Brazil, AP reports. The Coast Guard first called Venezuelan authorities to seek permission before boarding the boat. “Now they’re going to turn over to us the boat, the drugs, the prisoners. Those are good signals because that didn’t used to happen,” Chavez said.

On Monday, in a speech marking the seven year anniversary of a failed coup, Chavez said “sanctions must be imposed” on television networks which backed the brief overthrow and staged a media blackout. The AP quoted Ana Cristina Nunez of Globovision, saying that “The president is totally criminalizing the free exercise of freedom of expression.” However, the right to freedom of speech remains strong in Venezuela, with the majority of the country’s media in private hands – most of which remain vocally opposed to the Chavez government.

The Venezuelan government plans to issue $15.8 billion in local bonds to offset the shortfall in oil revenue. An article by Dow Jones Newswire asserts that the country’s bankers will comply in purchasing the newly issued debt, despite the fact that the government “threatens them with nationalization.” However, the government has consistently stated it has no intention of nationalizing large swathes of the banking sector.

Finally, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performed to a packed audience at Chicago’s Symphony Center on Friday, receiving much praise in a Chicago Tribune review.

April 7, 2009

Venezuela Hails US Initiative to Free the World from Nuclear Weapons

On Tuesday, President Chavez praised President Obama’s initiative to see the future world free of nuclear weapons, adding that he was open to cooperation with the Obama administration, AP reports. Chavez added “in the framework of respect, anything is possible: closer ties, including a possible dialogue.”

While in Japan, Chavez signed an agreement with Japan that could bring over $33 billion of additional investment to Venezuela’s oil industry. On Tuesday, Venezuela and Japan created a $4 billion investment fund, that will be part of a larger agreement on investment.

Finally, a Reuters article on recent corruption charges against opposition leaders Manuel Rosales and Raul Baduel asserts that the charges are part of a recent crackdown on the opposition.  It should be noted that, in the case of Rosales, the courts have not yet decided on whether the charges have legal merit. Meanwhile, Raul Baduel was recently arrested after having failed seven times to appear in court after having been summoned to testify about the disappearance of over $14 million during his tenure as defense minister.

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 23, 2009

Chavez and Delahunt Meet in Caracas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 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.

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