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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February 25, 2009

French President Congratulates Chavez

French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated President Chavez on his party’s victory in Venezuela’s Feb. 15 referendum on term limits. Venezuelanalysis reports that last week in a letter to President Chavez, the French President stated that “I hope the results will allow you to continue the policies you have implemented in the last ten years, especially those improving social justice and reducing inequality in your country.”

A Washington Post piece quotes an opposition-aligned Venezuelan Congressman as stating that the recent approval of Venezuela’s referendum on term limits was “a major fraud.” The Post fails to mention that numerous national and international observers deemed the voting process as ‘free and fair’ as did a majority of the leaders of Venezuela’s opposition parties.  The article goes on to depict the Venezuelan opposition as embattled dissidents struggling “to carve out space for itself within often-limiting, even hostile confines.”  However, as the article itself points out, the fact that the opposition is so marginalized institutionally is largely due to its own decision to boycott the last National Assembly elections.  The Post also fails to inform readers that Venezuela’s opposition parties stand to make important political gains in the near future.  Most opposition parties are now participating fully in elections and, based on the strong results they obtained in the Feb 15 referendum, are expected to regain significant political space in next year’s legislative elections.

The Charge d’Affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, Angelo Rivero Santos, replied to a Washington Times Sunday Column “Chavez holds Venezuela” which asserted that Venezuelans were “duped” into approving the amendment on term limits.  Rivero states that the column’s authors are influenced by a “cold war mentality” that prevents them from recognizing the strengthening of democracy that has taken place in Venezuela and Latin America through the implementation of policies of social and political inclusion for those who have been traditionally excluded.

With oil prices this year averaging $36 per barrel, Bloomberg reports that Venezuela will propose further oil production cuts at next month’s OPEC meeting. Venezuela’s Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez has said that if prices continue to remain low for two or three years, it may lead to difficult consequences. Rodriguez said that the government is currently evaluating various policy changes to confront the global economic crisis.

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 19, 2009

Venezuela and China Create Strategic Alliance

The joint development fund between Venezuela and China grew by $6 billion in deals signed this week to reach a total of $12 billion, according to the AP. The BBC reports that the funds could be used in Venezuela to support education, health, infrastructure, farming, and mining. Citing common interests and a “strategic alliance,” President Chavez said Venezuela would supply China with a million more barrels of oil per day (a fourfold increase) by 2015.

Also in oil news, Venezuela will boost its oil output by 12 percent over seven years through joint ventures with foreign firms in the Orinoco oil belt. Bloomberg reports that a leaked government document cited development costs of $18.4 billion for the projects. Meanwhile, rumored oil production cuts by OPEC are now said to be aimed at raising crude prices to $70 per barrel, according to the AP. Venezuela’s oil minister said the market is oversupplied and prices should be stabilized.

Two opinion pices today weigh in on Venezuela’s recent national referendum, in which voters chose to end term limits for elected officials. A Washington Times op-ed — one of nearly half a dozen recent ones in that paper criticizing Venezuela’s referendum — accuses the president of “buying votes.” The elections were free and fair, though, and social programs that have redirected oil revenues to the poor have helped halve the poverty rate over nearly a decade. The op-ed also overlooks the fact that Venezuela has been democratic for over half a century, citing just “two decades” of democratic gains. It also ignores the fact that experts recognize a dramatic increase in popular participation in politics under President Chavez. An editorial in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times of Texas makes similar doom-and-gloom economic predictions with little basis in fact in order to claim that Venezuela is “in sorry shape.”

The only bad news on the economy in Venezuela today concerns fraud by private foreign firms. After $8 billion in fraud by Stanford International Bank was revealed and investors rapidly withdrew yesterday, Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez tried to ease concerns, saying: “The public needs to maintain confidence in Venezuelan banks. This is an immediate takeover. The problem facing Stanford is separate from the Venezuelan financial system.” Venezuela followed Panama and Colombia in taking over Stanford operations.

Reuters reports that Stanford Bank, owned by a Texas billionaire, was long “a favored investment vehicle for Latin America’s wealthy and upper class.” The New York Times describes how the bank “lured clients in provincial cities,” amassing about $2.5 billion from among 10,000 clients in Venezuela — about a third of Stanford’s business, but only 0.2 percent of total banking deposits throughout Venezuela.

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 17, 2009

Venezuelan Referendum Hailed as Democratic by US State Department

Last Sunday’s referendum in Venezuela was “a process that was fully consistent with democratic practice,” according to President Obama’s State Department Spokesperson, Gordon Duguid. Pressed for a reaction, he said the referendum “was a matter for the Venezuelan people” and “I don’t have an opinion on the democratic practices of Venezuelans. In the United States, we have term limits, but that’s our practice.” According to the AP, this amounted to “rare praise for a U.S. antagonist after years of criticism from the Bush administration.”

The opposite approach is seen in three nearly indistinguishable editorials in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Dallas Morning News. They label Venezuela’s national referendum undemocratic, call President Chavez “authoritarian” and “dictatorial,” and anticipate an economic crash. None provides any facts to back up their claims. The Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning news ask President Obama to ignore Venezuela, while the L.A. Times says he must “reengage.” The editorials do not advance either of these goals, though, by rejecting the majority decision made by the Venezuelan people and their right to make such choices.

The AP, Reuters, and AFP continue to report on reactions to the referendum. Most state that the administration of President Chavez feels its mandate has been strengthened by another solid victory at the polls, meanwhile, criticisms by the opposition have not lessened. The Los Angeles Times features these by printing an interview with Teodoro Petkoff, who was briefly a presidential challenger in 2006 and was planning minister under the neoliberal Caldera government.

Finally in economic news, the BBC news reports that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will soon visit Venezuela as part of a regional tour to boost trade ties. The two countries are expected to sign a long-term joint oil production agreement worth several billion dollars.

February 13, 2009

Venezuelan Jewish Community Thanks Government for Swift Action

The President of Venezuela’s Israelite Association thanked the government for “returning peace and tranquility to our congregation” yesterday at a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (seen at far right). He also praised police “for apprehending the perpetrators” a synagogue was vandalized January 30th. According to the Caracas newspaper El Universal, Maduro said Venezuela’s government will continue to offer the Jewish community “cooperation, respect and solidarity.” Despite this and other evidence to the contrary, the New York Times reports that Jews in Venezuela have “a sense of dread” and the government has only “sown confusion.”

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas yesterday in support of a “yes” vote in Sunday’s referendum on whether or not to allow elected officials to run for more than two terms. The AP provides Chavez’s statements in favor of the amendment and quotes heavily from critics who say they amount to intimidation, ignoring the fact that the Venezuelan leader vowed again yesterday that he will remain democratic. “We will abide by whatever results; we will acknowledge the authority of institutions,” Chavez said.

Venezuelan lawmakers who recently visited Washington discuss the referendum and the issues at stake in Foreign Policy Magazine. Calixto Ortega said: “Venezuela is a victim of an ongoing campaign of disinformation, poor information, and sometimes demonizing of our own [electoral] process.” Meanwhile, according to Francisco Torrealba, Sunday’s referendum is “a recognition of the political rights of Venezuelans. We want to perfect our democracy.” An op-ed in Green Left Weekly offers an argument in favor of respecting Venezuela’s democracy. It concludes: “The Venezuelan people have the right to determine their political system and decide for themselves who can or cannot stand for election.”

A Washington Times editorial is emblematic of U.S. media treatment Venezuela ahead of the referendum. Contrary to what the editorial claims, voters are not bribed by so-called “shock troops” that support Chavez, nor does the opposition face intimidation. As always, opposition groups have demonstrated and had ample access to the country’s largely private media. Rather than an accurate evaluation of the realities of Venezuela, the Washington Times offers the following opinion of President Chavez: “We would be delighted to see him leave office some day, preferably soon.”

In the U.S. yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair addressed the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. He issued warnings about Venezuela, claiming the country offers a “safe haven” to Colombian rebels, though this is not — nor has it ever been — a policy of the Chavez government. He also alleged that Venezuela is making the region a “permissive environment for Hezbollah to exploit.” Again, this runs counter the the positions of Venezuelan government officials, who repeatedly reassert that they do not support terrorism.

Finally, in energy news, sources report that Venezuelan-owned Citgo will carry out layoffs of less than two percent of personnel. Lowered demand for oil is also causing OPEC to adjust its forecasts for 2009, according to Bloomberg. The French oil firm Total will maintain its investments in Venezuela rather than moving on to Brazil, however; the company says it will expand investments there because “Venezuela is an important target for acreage.”

February 11, 2009

Reuters: Venezuela’s Chavez Improving the Lives of Millions

Efforts by the Venezuelan government to reduce poverty and improve the lives of average citizens are are the source of President Chavez’s continued popularity, Reuters reported yesterday. Among other initiatives such as an innovative cable car, Chavez is known for “investing in health clinics and projects to move families from precarious shacks.” One supporter explains: “He’s the only president who has really worked for the poor,” a fact that Reuters says is “making Venezuela’s millions of poor feel cared for.”

Reuters also reports that, ahead of Sunday’s referendum, President Chavez “has toned down his usually aggressive rhetoric toward the opposition to focus on getting his supporters out to vote.” A very different story is presented by Bloomberg and the New York Times, the latter of which calls the campaigning “ugly.” It suggests that pro-government groups go unpunished for crimes just before mentioning the arrest of the leader of one such notorious organization. The Chavez government has consistently asked for a peaceful debate on all sides.

In other campaign-related news, President Chavez responded to Venezuela’s overwhelmingly opposition-aligned media yesterday by calling its accusations of antisemitism false and damaging. The AP reports that Chavez called the accusations a “criminal attempt to try to unleash a religious war in Venezuela.” Four days remain until the national referendum.

Finally, the Boston Globe lumps Venezuela together with Iran as a supposed “anti-US regime” in an article but offers no explanation or context. Its claim is that so-called “anti-US” leaders are afraid President Obama will steal their electoral base, as though the US leader were a ballot option abroad. For his part, President Chavez has frequently said publicly that he welcomes better relations with the US under Obama.

February 4, 2009

Venezuelan Officials Repeatedly Condemn Synagogue Vandalism

More reports have come out regarding the deplorable attack on a Caracas synagogue. On the night of January 30th, around 15 people broke into a synagogue, damaged a copy of the Torah, and sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls. The AFP quotes Israeli officials asserting that “such acts could not have taken place without the benevolent gaze of the authorities at the highest level.” Yet President Chavez and other high-level officials have repeatedly condemned the attacks and have, furthermore, emphasized that the Venezuelan government repudiates all forms of anti-Semitic behavior. The OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza stated “I trust the people responsible for this attack will be found and punished and that the government will do anything in its power to protect the lives and property of the Jewish community in Venezuela.”

On Monday, Venezuelans celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Bolivarian Revolution. A brief New York Times article by Simon Romero is titled “Venezuela: Chávez Celebrates Chávez.”  This and other articles often fail to note the fundamental gains in human development that the Chávez government has brought to Venezuela over the past 10 years. Since 1998, the rate of households living in extreme poverty has declined by 54%, and the overall poverty rate has declined by 35%.

An article by McClatchy Newspapers marks the 10 years of President Chavez’s administration by writing that high inflation and continued food shortages pose challenges for Chavez in the February 15th referendum on term limits. The article fails to mention that rates of inflation remain significantly lower than those seen in the 1990’s.  Food shortages have also largely decreased, in comparison with previous years, due to the government’s efforts to boost domestic food production, and its easing of price controls on many staple food items.

February 3, 2009

Venezuelans Celebrate 10 Years of Revolution

Yesterday, President Chavez again expressed hope for better relations between Venezuela and the U.S. and vowed to accept any result in the February 15th referendum, saying: “If we lose, we lose.”

The comments were made in an interview with CNN on the occasion of his tenth anniversary in elected office. Chavez welcomed talks with Obama, saying “I wish we could restore relations to the same level we had with President Clinton.” He questioned the ability of the U.S. to reduce its high levels of oil consumption,” and highlighted the dense economic ties between the U.S. and Venezuela: “We employ thousands of workers in the United States… We give aid to hundreds of thousands of poor families in the United States with our heating oil program.”

Crowds in Caracas yesterday cheered the anniversary of Chavez’s first swearing-in (see image above). AFP reports that, then years later, the leader maintains 57 percent approval ratings. Voters will decide in less than two weeks whether or not to allow Chavez chance to compete for a third term. According to the rector of the Central University of Venezuela: “There have been errors and inefficiency in these 10 years but also positive changes for the country that should not be reversed.”

Caracas also hosted a summit of the regional group ALBA yesterday. In attendance were leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Dominica, and Cuba. The AP reports that the countries agreed to create another joint fund  to help boost agricultural production and offset high food prices.

Finally, in economic news, Reuters reports that Venezuelan officials  have no plans to devalue the currency or raise taxes at home. Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg, Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez said yesterday that Venezuela reduced its combined foreign and domestic debt last year by $150 million to reach an amount of $43 billion. This makes the debt equal to just 13.5 percent of GDP, a very strong ratio compared Venezuela’s past figures as well as current ones in the US and UK.

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