VIO News Blog

March 17, 2009

Venezuela has the World’s Second Biggest Oil Reserves

Venezuela has the world’s second-biggest oil reserves, Bloomberg reports today. Its proven reserves increased by 14% last year to reach 172.3 billion, passing Iran and putting the country closer to the current leader, Saudi Arabia. More reserves are yet to be certified by independent analysts.

The AP reports that opposition state governors in Venezuela yesterday challenged the decision of President Chavez to bring the maintenance of highways, airports, and seaports under federal management, asking the Supreme Court to rule on whether or not it is constitutional. Meanwhile, a group of 13 elected lawmakers in the National Assembly issued a statement defending the move as a bid to ensure the efficient use of public services. They asserted that the opposition arguments were designed to “confuse the public.”

Sentencing occurred yesterday in the trial of Franklin Duran, who was given four years in jail and a $175,000 fine. Prosecutors argued that he attempted to help Venezuela cover up the “suitcase scandal,” in which cash was allegedly sent to Argentina. According to the AP, U.S. District Judge Lenard said yesterday that Duran “did not commit espionage against the U.S. or threaten its national interests,” but that “The respect of the sovereignty of the United States is paramount.” The Miami Herald reports: “Federal prosecutor Tom Mulvihill recommended more than 13 years, saying Duran might not have been a “spy” for the Chávez government but that he did ”harm” the United States.” Many commentators agree that the case was heavily politicized.

The Inter American Press Association, a Miami-based group of newspaper editors and owners, said at the close of a meeting in Paraguay on Monday that press freedom is deteriorating in the Americas. It also accused President Chavez of “humiliating the press,” and claimed his “incendiary rhetoric” is being adopted by several other leaders throughout the region. Most of Venezuela’s media is private-owned and virulently anti-government, and criticizes the Chavez administration freely and openly. Meanwhile, IAPA “applauded a drop in violence against journalists in Colombia,” where it found that last year 29 death threats were reported and five journalists went into exile.

Venezuela’s baseball team beat Puerto Rico 2-0 in Miami yesterday to move on to the World Baseball Classic semi-finals. The AP reports that some Venezuelan fans cheered especially loud for Magglio Ordonez of the Detroit Tigers due to his public support for the constitutional amendment approved by Venezuelan voters in a referendum last month.

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January 28, 2009

Venezuelan FM: Relationship with the Middle East is Transparent

Venezuela has a “transparent relationship” with the Middle East, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said yesterday. The AFP reports that he explained: “We have no official relations with (Hamas and Hezbollah) and if we did we would say so. …Our government totally and absolutely guarantees religious equality and nondiscrimination on religious issues.” The comments were a response to allegations in an Israeli newspaper the same day Israel expelled Venezuelan diplomats.

Maduro also said yesterday that Venezuela respects President Obama’s plan for energy independence, but that “at the same time we have been asking them to respect Venezuelan and Latin American decisions concerning the path we have taken.” According to the Financial Times, Obama plans to cut U.S. oil use by 4m barrels a day within 10 years. U.S. oil consumption has grown over the decade to reach 20.7 million barrels per day, an amount greater that of than any other nation.

The AP and Reuters report on comments by Venezuela’s foreign minister with headlines declaring that Venezuela-U.S. relations will remain on hold under Obama. The actual statements suggest a far more measured position, though; Maduro said that Venezuela will seek to restore diplomatic ties with the U.S. “in the best and most correct manner,” and that this “will probably take some time.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (seen at right) accused Iran of “subversive activity” in Latin America yesterday at a senate hearing in Washington. He claimed Iranians are opening “a lot of offices” in “a number of places.” Venezuela was mentioned as the site of a visit by the Russian navy on its tour of the region last year. Gates joked that the Russians would have had more fun had they visited Miami.

An ALBA summit will be held in Venezuela next week, according to CNN. Set to attend are the leaders of Honduras, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia, as well as representatives from Ecuador and other observer nations. They will discuss common initiatives, including a shared currency. CNN mentions the upcoming referendum in Venezuela on term limits, claiming Venezuelans rejected similar legislation last year. However, that referendum concerned 69 proposals including communal property rights, recognition for Afro-Venezuelans, ending foreign funding for political campaigns, and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

USA Today provides a very misleading account of the issue of term limits in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. It wrongly classifies democratic leaders in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as a new class of “strongmen.” The leaders are described as authoritarian despite the fact that they are “generally civilians instead of soldiers, and they take office via elections instead of coups… [and] are staying in office because they are so popular.” Bolivia is singled out for its new constitution, approved in a national referendum last Sunday. The charter  recognizes the rights of Indigenous and Afro-Bolivians and guarantees healthcare, education, water, and a safe environment to all citizens.

January 27, 2009

Venezuelan Social Programs Continue to Operate Despite Low Crude Price

Oil is the top story today, with the Financial Times reporting that the lowered price of crude has caused President Chavez to reign in spending and threatens to undermine the revolutionary process. Strangely, no mention is made of Chavez’s frequent assertion that social programs in Venezuela will continue to be funded using the country’s large foreign currency reserves and development funds. Venezuela’s economic future is hotly debated, with some predicting a crash. Many other analysts have argued precisely the opposite; the Financial Times quotes an expert that says the country has a comfortable current account surplus and that “There’s no pressure on the government to devalue [the currency].”

Potential oil production cuts are also in the news. The AP reports that Venezuela will conform to further cuts mandated by OPEC. Price stabilization is the objective, according to Chavez, who is quoted in Bloomberg as saying: “If necessary, we’ll cut 4 million barrels more of production, but we’re not going to allow oil prices to drop to $6 a barrel again.”

In international news, the Caracas newspaper El Universal reports that Chavez advocated freedom for hostages during his visit to Colombia last weekend. In comments broadcast to captives held by the FARC over a Colombian radio station, the Venezuelan leader said: “I want to greet all of you, and also I am asking for freedom for all, freedom and equality.”

A Washington Post editorial yesterday on reactions to the Obama presidency abroad mentions Venezuela as a “predictable US adversary,” ignoring President Chavez’s appeals for better relations. Chavez wrote in an op-ed Sunday that, if the US can “unclench its fist,” the world is ready to receive the Obama administration with “outstretched hands, full of brotherhood.”

Continuing coverage of Bolivia’s successful approval of a new constitution Sunday in a national referendum contains many references to Venezuela. Time Magazine provides a good overview of Bolivia’s new charter, but mangles a parallel with Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. Time states that Venezuela’s Chavez “failed in his bid at ending presidential term limits,” however, a referendum on this issue is planned for February 15th. Coverage in the Christian Science Monitor features criticisms of Bolivia’s constitution, although it garnered a decisive rate of 60 percent support at the polls.

January 14, 2009

Venezuelan Amendment to Give Greater Authority to the People

Yesterday, President Chavez gave his annual address to the National Assembly. The BBC reports that the Venezuelan leader advocated a referendum on ending term limits for elected officials. He said: “the objective of the amendment is to give greater power to the people and allow them greater authority to remove or install governments.” Chavez also highlighted the fact that, in the decade since he entered office, 2.7 million Venezuelans have escaped from poverty.

The Los Angeles Times and Reuters report on the national referendum that will likely take place next month. Reuters cites poll data showing that reflects a potential “no” vote on the issue of ending term limits for elected office. Campaigning, though, has not begun as a referendum date is not yet set. The Times repeats the common falsehood that this is something Venezuelan voters have already struck down. Last year’s referendum was on a package of 69 very diverse constitutional reforms, while the new electoral test is regarding a single amendment.

In economic news, Bloomberg and the AP report that OPEC oil countries may carry out further production cuts. According to the AP, Chavez said that Venezuela’s “strategy is to defend fair prices for oil.”

The AP also reports that Venezuela continues to negotiate a compensation deal for the steelmaker Ternium, and it is considering giving the private firm a ten percent stake in the newly nationalized industry.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal runs an op-ed by an author of the 2009 “Index of Economic Freedom” just released by the conservative Heritage Foundation. It says Venezuela’s rank dropped by 4.8 points, contradicting the actual report, which indicates a change of 3.8 points. The op-ed attributes Venezuela’s sinking rank to “price controls, currency devaluations, nationalizations and …corruption.” However, price controls were lifted in 2008, and the currency was not devalued — it has remained fixed since 2005. Foreign investment continues despite the nationalizations, and trade with the U.S. rose 25% last year. Meanwhile, corruption is perhaps Venezuela’s oldest political problem. The “Economic Freedoms” do not take into account important problems like unemployment, which is currently higher in the U.S. than in Venezuela.

January 13, 2009

Venezuela’s Political Reality Distorted Again Today

The Washington Times reports that Aruba is “worried” by a Venezuelan natural gas project located 14 miles off its shore. The article, written by a freelance Dutch journalist, is based on one comment by Dutch embassy staff and provides no insights from Venezuelan authorities.

In Foreign Policy Magazine, a Washington-based analyst says President Chavez will not win a referendum on ending term limits, but gives little accurate information about the proposed legislation. An amendment would not, as the piece states, end term limits “among other things.” A single question approved in rough draft form by the National Assembly yesterday simply asks voters if they agree with ending term limits for all public offices. Nor is the legislation a bid by Chavez to become “president-for-life.” It would allow all elected officials the chance to compete in free and fair elections as many times as they wish. The referendum will likely occur on February 15th.

A Wall Street Journal op-ed presents an intensely distorted picture of Venezuela by arguing that it is not a democracy. It is unclear how the Journal determined that elections are not free and fair in Venezuela, when all international observers (the OAS, the Carter Center, the EU, NAACP, and others) have certified them as such. The Chavez government is not a “military government”; dismissals from the armed forces came in 2002 after some factions helped overthrow the democratic order, which would be standard procedure in any country. Meanwhile, civilians involved in the coup were pardoned by the president in January 2008. Children are not “indoctrinated” in public schools; a re-write of curricula along socialist lines was sidelined last year due to criticisms. Economic freedom is not “dead,” nor is a currency devaluation planned. Venezuela is rendered unrecognizable in the Journal’s opinion page.

A Washington Post op-ed from the National Endowment for Democracy similarly deems Venezuela “nondemocratic.” This is despite the fact of free and fair elections, the separation of powers, and abundant human rights guarantees under the constitution. The misperception is particularly sad because Venezuela is among the longest-running democracies in Latin America, and has seen an explosion of popular participation in politics under President Chavez. Polls like Latinobarometro show that Venezuelans are the most likely in the region to support democracy, and second most likely to express satisfaction with the actual functioning of the democratic process.

Finally, two more contrasting reports on the economy appear today. A McClatchy wire story says Latin America is better prepared to handle an economic crisis than it has been in the past. Meanwhile, a Miami Herald op-ed argues that the region cannot insulate itself and recommends more of the same capitalist policies that have helped cause repeated crashes.

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.”

December 16, 2008

A New Era Begins as Latin American Leaders Meet in Brazil

Venezuela is planning to invest more in steel production. The steel plant Sidor, recently renationalized after a decade of private ownership, is slated to undergo improvements worth $900 million. The AP reports that Venezuela is also compensating the Argentine-Italian firm Ternium S.A. for its purchase of a 60% stake in Sidor.

El Nuevo Herald reports that some student groups in Venezuela are planning an “offensive” to block a democratic vote on presidential term limits. An anti-Chavez student leader who now has a post in the Caracas municipal government claims that Venezuela’s opposition is “at a media disadvantage.” In fact, though, the majority of TV, radio, and newspapers in Venezuela are private-owned and aligned with the political opposition. Venezuela’s media is extremely critical of the government, a fact which has helped publicize the cause of student groups that oppose Chavez. El Nuevo Herald shows its own bias by referring to anti-Chavez groups as simply “students,” while calling youths who support the elected government “pro-Chavez activists.” Venezuelans have the right to hold a national referendum on constitutional amendments when there is two-thirds approval in the National Assembly or a petition by 15% of the electorate.

The AP is reporting that an economic summit that begins in Brazil today is “the first time in recent memory that top Latin American leaders have met without the presence of an outside power.” President Chavez said: “There’s no doubt that a new historic era is beginning.”

OPEC countries will meet tomorrow in Algeria. The Financial Times reports that analysts say production will likely be cut by 2 billion barrels, following calls from Venezuela and other nations to reduce the amount of supplies on the market. Bloomberg quotes an energy analyst at a private firm in Vienna who says “There is too much oil on the market right now.”

December 2, 2008

Venezuela to Aid Nicaragua if US and Europe Refuse

Venezuela has offered economic assistance to Nicaragua if the U.S. and Europe follow through on threats to withdraw anti-poverty aid, according to the AP today. President Ortega said the offer came “without conditions of any sort.”

More news appears today on comments made by President Chavez about the possibility that lawmakers or voters could push a referendum soon on ending presidential term limits. The AP reports that Chavez emphasized that such an initiative should not drag on, saying “I wouldn’t like to spend 2009 in a debate, a long campaign.” Last December, this and 68 other constitutional reforms were defeated by less than two percentage points in a referendum, but experts emphasize continued support for the president. Reuters and Time present the possible end to term limits as an autocratic move by President Chavez, even though his mandate would remain subject to democratic elections. Many other democracies throughout the world — including Canada, Chile, and Peru — do not impose term limits on the top executive.

The BBC reports today that joint naval exercises between Venezuela and Russia are intended to “evaluate the skills and capabilities of the fleets of both nations to fight against terrorism and drug-trafficking,” according to a Russian Vice-Admiral. The exercises, as well as a potential deal on the production of nuclear energy for civilian use, have been portrayed the media as a revival of Cold War-era dynamics. President Chavez, however, has emphasized the issues of sovereignty and multilateralism. The Miami Herald persists in calling the naval exercises an “anti-U.S.” move and reports that Chavez tried to “politicize” the visit of President Medvedev by giving him a Simon Bolivar award.

The Russian leader in fact spent less time in Venezuela than in the other countries he visited: Peru, Brazil, and Cuba. A Washington Post op-ed suggests that the visit was a “farce” that served only to show that Russia “can play games in America’s back yard.” The “back yard” designation is one Latin America has sought to shake.

December 1, 2008

Venezuela Hosts ALBA Summit for Latin American Regional Cooperation

President Chavez proposed a common currency for nations at last week’s summit of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas). According to Bloomberg, he urged regional, cooperative solutions to financial troubles and less dependence on the IMF and World Bank. At the meeting were the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, and Dominica (see image at right). Mainstream media coverage of the event was very limited.

Venezuela begins joint naval exercises with Russia today, the AP reports. Presidents Chavez and Medvedev signed several accords on oil and nuclear energy. A New York Times article suggests that such plans may go nowhere, contrary to evidence of greater cooperation. Reuters reports that the Venezuelan leader told his Russian counterpart, “Our mission is a mission of peace, you are leading us to the balanced multi-polar world.”

News comes today that President Chavez, whose approval ratings are at 55 percent by modest estimates, urged supporters to organize if they wish him to have a chance at reelection in 2012. The current constitution allows two term limits, but legislation has been proposed to allow presidents to run for office beyond that point. The media portrays this as a bid by Chavez to become “president-for-life,” ignoring the fact that Venezuela would remain a democratic country guided by electoral competition. Reelection was one of 69 items included in a set of constitutional reforms that lost narrowly in a referendum last year. Chavez said that he would no longer put forth such legislation, but that voters have the right to bring about a new referendum on the issue if they gather signatures. Voters pushed a referendum on Chavez’s presidency in 2004, which he won with 59% support.

A New York Times editorial offers advice on Latin America for the Obama administration. Though the paper generally claims the U.S. has successfully “ignored” Venezuela, this time it recognizes — and laments — the Bush administration’s support for the failed coup against Chavez in 2002. The Times also insists that Venezuela’s Chavez is “corrupt and autocratic,” despite recent democratic elections deemed exemplary by the OAS, and predicts declining influence for Venezuela in the region, hinting that it will lose economic clout. Many credible experts, on the other hand, have said that Venezuela will remain a robust economy despite lowered oil prices.

Colombia recalled its consul in Venezuela’s second-largest city of Maracaibo on Sunday after he was chastised for making statements against the government. In comments aired on TV, the consul said the election of opposition governors in Zulia and Tachira was “very good news” and called one of the governors a “a very, very special friend,” according to Bloomberg.

Finally, Colombia’s Ingrid Betancourt is on tour to thank the Latin America leaders who helped her escape captivity from the FARC, including President Chavez. The Venezuelan leader negotiated the release of six hostages this year, and was a vocal advocate for Betancourt.

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.

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