VIO News Blog

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.

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March 24, 2009

Venezuelan Economy Adjusts to Oil Prices

After President Chavez on Saturday announced a series of economic measures to adjust for lowered oil prices, the Associated Press reports that on Monday several analysts warned that the steps would not be enough to tackle the more serious economic problems of inflation and slowed growth. Reuters quotes a Morgan Stanley analyst as saying that, after several years of record economic growth, Venezuela’s economy will likely contract by 4% this year.  However, with over $70 billion in foreign currency reserves, Venezuela is sticking to its plan to invest $20 billion in non-oil sector development projects this year.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Venezuela’s Bolivar strengthened on Monday in the parallel market after Chavez ruled out a currency devaluation.

The AFP reports that President Chavez denied rumors of a rift between Raul Castro and himself, and described such talk as “a little campaign.” The rumor of such a rift was promoted by former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, who later signaled that he has absolutely no evidence to back up his claim.

Honduran president Manuel Zelaya has proposed that the nation’s charter be re-drafted in order to adapt to the “substantial and significant changes” that have occurred since the adoption of the current constitution in 1982. Zelaya wants voters to decide by June 24th whether a constitutional assembly should be convoked. The move would follow in the footsteps of other countries in the region such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

In an op-ed distributed by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, Angelo Rivero Santos, the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, responds to allegations of anti-Semitism directed at the government of Venezuela.   Rivero states that “Venezuela’s Jewish community is an integral and essential part of our country’s singularly diverse society.” Given President Chavez’s efforts to fight racism and discrimination,  accusations of anti-Semitism have been “especially painful for the government of Venezuela.”  But Rivero signals that these accusations have been made primarily by organizations based outside of Venezuela and that an organization representing Venezuelan Jews has rejected the claims and expressed disappointment at not having been consulted beforehand.

Finally in an interview by Fareed Zakaria, President Lula da Silva of Brazil was questioned about why his government does not speak out against how Hugo Chavez has “destroyed democracy in Venezuela.” Da Silva responded by stating that “…no one can say that there is no democracy in Venezuela. He (Chavez) has been through five, six elections. I’ve only had two.”  There have in fact been fourteen national elections in Venezuela since Chavez first came to power in 1998, all of which have been characterized as free and fair by independent electoral monitoring groups.

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.

January 15, 2009

Venezuela’s National Assembly Votes in Favor of Referendum

Lawmakers in Venezuela’s National Assembly voted 156 to 6 in favor of holding a national referendum on the issue of term limits. AFP reports that one lawmaker explained he supported the amendment “so that all legally able citizens can run for election and the people can choose from them without limitations of any kind.”

AFP reports that President Chavez said his intention is not to remain in office indefinitely. He said: “What we have here is a national independence project that still needs more work to consolidate. It’s not consolidated yet.” The referendum will likely occur on February 15th.

The AP and AFP report that Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry announced yesterday a formal break in diplomatic ties with Israel, citing “inhumane persecution of the Palestinian people.” A statement quoted by AFP says: “Israel has systematically ignored United Nations (ceasefire) calls, repeatedly and unashamedly violating approved resolutions…and placing itself increasingly outside international law.” Bolivian President Evo Morales also cut ties with Israel, saying its attacks “seriously threatened world peace.”

A contradictory report from the New York Times states that Venezuela is “quietly courting” foreign firms to help exploit the Orinoco Belt oil projects nationalized in 2007. Bidding by private investors like Chevron, Shell, Total, and BP is presented as a something Chavez was forced to do after oil prices crashed, but in fact, the article states that it began when oil prices were high. Several foreign firms have remained on throughout the nationalization. To bring the Orinico Belt oil projects under the rubric of national control established in 1976, Venezuela’s PDVSA is simply purchasing the majority of shares.

Finally, in international relations, a letter in the International Herald Tribune asks Obama to take “a new approach to Chavez,” for “many Latin Americans see him as the symbolic voice for those who Washington has all too often ignored.” The letter states that Venezuela should at least be treated as a “legitimate business partner.”

December 22, 2008

Experts Defend Venezuela’s Human Rights Record

The British magazine New Internationalist reports on a letter signed by 100 academics criticizing the most recent Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela. These experts accuse the U.S.-based NGO of “naked political bias” and “failing to do its homework.” To read the full letter on the NACLA website, click here.

Reuters reports that Venezuela may see a referendum on presidential term limits as soon as February 15th. It wrongly states, though, that voters will be asked to weigh in on term limits “for the second time in 14 months.” Last year’s referendum was on 69 diverse constitutional reforms that — in addition to ending term limits — would have lowered the voting age, changed campaign financing laws, promoted the “social economy,” prohibited monopolies, shortened the work week, extended social security, created new forms of property, and banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was no indication that opposition to ending term limits caused the reforms to fail.

El Nuevo Herald reports that so-called “backers” of President Chavez have been responsible for violence in recent weeks, misleading readers by failing to point out that these groups have been strongly condemned by government officials. President Chavez and others in his administration have denounced groups like “La Piedrita” and “Tupamarus” and their unlawful tactics.

In other news, sources reported over the weekend that President Chavez ordered a company to cease construction on a shopping mall in the low-income Caracas neighborhood of La Candelaria. The mall, according to the AP, was singled out for hogging space and resources in an area that badly needs social services such as hospitals and schools. Chavez has often criticized the culture of unbridled consumerism. AP reports that it is not yet known how much the government will pay the owners of the shopping mall in compensation.

A Miami Herald column by Andres Oppenheimer states that the U.S. will remain dominant and even “regain some of the ground it lost in the hemisphere” under the Obama administration. By downplaying the historic example of unity among Latin American leaders at the largest ever regional summit last week, it misses the point of increased cooperation and respect for sovereignty.

Finally, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column anticipates the effect of global recession on supposed U.S. foes. Venezuela is wrongly placed in this category. The piece states eerily: “If Mr. Chavez has to cut subsidies — as he must — he could be toppled in a matter of months.” The author blatantly ignores the fact that Venezuela has been a democratic country for over fifty years, longer than most countries in the hemisphere, and that President Chavez is an elected leader who is accountable to voters. To suggest that his government should be “toppled” is an insult to Venezuelan citizens, who in 2002 averted a coup backed by U.S. government agencies.

December 3, 2008

Manuel Rosales Summoned by Venezuelan Attorney General

Manuel Rosales, the opposition candidate who lost to Hugo Chavez in the last presidential elections, has been called to a hearing by Venezuela’s Attorney General. According to the AP and Bloomberg, prosecutors will determine next Thursday whether to file criminal charges against him for the misuse of public funds.

An electoral official in Venezuela has said that a referendum to amend the constitution and end presidential term limits could occur in February, according to the AP. Voters can bring about a referendum through petitioning, as they did in 2004, but fifteen percent (about 2.5 million) will need to sign on. Reuters reports that President Chavez also mentioned the end of February as a possible referendum date. The Electoral Council has 30 days to hold a vote once a petition is complete. The Miami Herald insists that the initiative is a bid by Chavez to become “president-for-life” — an inaccurate statement given that the Venezuelan leader would simply be allowed to compete in future democratic elections, giving voters more candidates from which to choose. The Herald also puts inflation rates in Venezuela at 35 percent, which is about 5 percentage points too high, according to estimates published this month in the Caracas newspaper El Universal.

The BBC reports that Venezuela’s opposition is determined to block a referendum on presidential term limits. They say the initiative was rejected by voters a year ago, when a set of 69 constitutional reforms did not pass. According to a Dow Jones article which quotes only opposition sources, the referendum is being pushed through quickly ahead of an impending economic crash. Many experts, though, do not share Dow Jones’s picture of a “bleak economic outlook” for 2009; Venezuela’s economy has been deemed robust and able to survive lowered oil prices by analysts from CEPR and IDEAGlobal.

In other economic news, the Financial Times reports that private companies including banks have thrived under the administration of President Chavez, giving rise to new business elites. It profiles Wilmer Ruperti, who broke the PDVSA oil sabotage in 2002 and has become one of the so-called “Boligarchs.” The subtext here is that corruption permeates the Chavez administration — a claim also made in the Miami Herald and Christian Science Monitor today. According to one expert, oil booms have always produced new elites, and this “is history repeating itself.”

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor reports on crime in Venezuela and citizen concerns about security despite the fact that “extreme poverty and unemployment have been halved since Chávez took office.” It deems Caracas the “murder capital” of South America, but does not mention that murder rates in Venezuela overall are lower than those in neighboring Colombia and in El Salvador. The president, meanwhile, has not been “punished at the ballot box” for high crime rates because many understand the problem as an inherited one.

CORRECTION: yesterday’s roundup incorrectly stated that Reuters and Time Magazine articles portrayed President Chavez’s call for new legislation ending presidential term limits as “autocratic.” The word autocratic ought not to have had quotation marks around it, for it was not taken verbatim from either article.

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.

September 24, 2008

Venezuelan Local Election Campaigns Begin as Latin American Leaders Discuss Global Economy

Campaigning for local elections began yesterday in Venezuela. According to the AP, the mayoral and gubernatorial races will be “a key test” for the political party of President Chavez (the PSUV) and for opposition groups. A war of words has already begun, with opposition leaders claiming that it is unfair for the government to have “exclusive use” of state television, even though most private networks are staunchly anti-Chavez. Meanwhile, the Caracas mayoral candidate Jorge Rodriguez appealed to the opposition to “Leave behind the violent behavior.” Voting will take place on November 23rd.

In China yesterday, President Chavez promised to raise Venezuelan exports to the fast-growing country to 1 million barrels a day by 2012, according to the AP. Reuters reports that a preexisting joint development fund between China and Venezuela will be doubled to reach $12 billion, and that the countries will create two joint oil refineries. Forbes claims that these economic ties are spurred by Venezuela’s supposed desire to “cozy up to left-leaning rivals of the United States,” though the US certainly does more trade each year with China than Venezuela does.

The trial of Venezuelan businessmen accused by the US government as acting as unregistered foreign agents continues in Florida. The BBC and AP report that one of the accused men, who have plead guilty, now says that the funds in question totaled $4.2 million. US prosecutors refuse to see the trial as a politically motivated move by the US against Venezuela, though experts point out that the circumstances are suspect and that no similar trial would likely be brought against any other country in the region.

At the UN Summit in New York, Latin American leaders from many countries decried government bailouts in the US and expressed fears about the volatile “casino” economy of the northern nation, according to the Miami Herald. “We must not allow the burden of boundless greed of a few to be shouldered by all… The economy is too serious an undertaking to be left in the hands of speculators. Ethics must also apply to the economy,” said Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Meanwhile, Cristina Fernandez of Argentina lamented the fact that “In South America, they told us that the market would solve everything.”

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