VIO News Blog

April 30, 2009

New Venezuelan Central Bank Head Appointed

Dow Jones reported yesterday that Venezuela’s National Assembly approved President Chavez’s decision to nominate Nelson Merentes to head the country’s Central Bank.  Merentes, who was Finance Minister from 2004 to 2007, was in charge of the purchasing and selling of structured notes made up of sovereign debt from other Latin American countries who sought to end their dependence on the International Monetary Fund.  The presidency of the Central Bank has been vacant since the death of its last president in December of last year.

The Washington Post has published yet another editorial encouraging the Obama Administration to adopt a harder line towards Venezuela.  According to the Post, the judicial measures taken against several government opponents facing corruption charges are evidence of a “a major new campaign against what remains of Venezuela’s democracy”.  Not mentioned in the heavily biased editorial is the fact that pro-government figures, like ex Mayor of Caracas Juan Barreto, are also being prosecuted for crimes involving corruption.

Political comment pieces in the Washington Times and the Kansas City Star include short references to President Obama’s friendly handshake with President Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.  The Washington Times refers derisively to the “cerebral president’s” courteous attitude towards “America-hater Hugo Chavez”, despite the fact that the Venezuelan president has often stated that, while he had serious differences with the Bush Administration, he has wished to maintain the best possible relations with the people of the United States.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times has reported that a Florida pharmacy confirmed that a medication given to 21 prized polo horses from Caracas that died at the US Open polo tournament had been incorrectly prepared.   Franck’s Pharmacy of Ocala, Florida announced that “the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect.”

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April 29, 2009

Rosales Hides Behind Right-Wing Friends

El Universal reports that the Peruvian government has sent conciliatory signals to Venezuela despite its decision to offer asylum to opposition politician Manuel Rosales who faces charges of corruption in the Venezuelan courts. While the Venezuelan foreign ministry recalled its ambassador in Lima and stated that the relationship with the Andean nation was under “evaluation”, Peru has maintained its ambassador in Caracas. Peruvian President Alan Garcia declared that his government had “a position of friendship with the Venezuelan government” but also had a policy of providing “shelter to whomever feels threatened.” German Saltron, Venezuela’s representative to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, contested the notion that Peru’s offer of asylum was based on “humanitarian reasons”, signaling President Garcia’s “political and ideological affinity” with Rosales and his alleged long-standing friendship with opposition leader Carlos Andres Perez.

On Tuesday, 17 individuals were arrested in Curacao for their alleged involvement in an international drug ring that provided financial support to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to a statement released by Dutch Authorities, the arrests were carried out thanks to a coordinated operation involving police and judicial organisms from Curacao, the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

Also on Tuesday, ex President Jimmy Carter announced that he would be meeting with the Presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru over the coming days.

The AP reports that Iran’s defense minister has held talks with his Venezuelan counterpart in Caracas. The Iranian official told Iran’s state media that his country was developing a long-term cooperation plan with Venezuela; however, Venezuelan officials declined to make any comments regarding the ongoing talks.

In economic news, Dow Jones reports that the value of the Bolivar has strengthened against the dollar in Venezuela’s parallel market as a result PDVSA’s announcement of plans to emit several billion dollars worth of dollar-denominated debt. Meanwhile, President Chavez approved the emission of 12 billion bolivars ($4.8 billion) in treasury notes in order to cover the budgetary gap generated by lower oil prices. The National Assembly has authorized the selling of up to $15.8 billion in local treasury bonds before the year’s end.

Finally, on Tuesday Venezuela’s state oil company announced that the round of bidding on three projects to develop the heavy-oil fields in the Orinoco basin has been delayed three months. The company will announce the bidding results on August 14th rather than May 7 as had been originally announced.

April 8, 2009

Venezuelan National Assembly Moves to Appoint Caracas Administrator

On Tuesday, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a new law which creates a federally appointed administrator of Caracas that will serve as a direct link between the federal government and the city’s opposition-aligned mayor. The AP asserts that the new law weakens the authority of the Caracas mayoralty. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma accused the government of trying to subordinate his authority, however pro-Chavez Jose Albornoz rejected the idea that the new law is politically motivated and stated that it will help improve basic services in the city, like trash collection.

Catholic leaders in Venezuela from the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference also accused Chavez of subordinating his regional opponents. Chavez told Venezuelan state television from China, that “This group of bishops is shameless,” and siding with “crooks,” AP reports. The Bishop’s Conference has often sided with the opposition in its differences with the Chavez government.

On Monday night, the widely acclaimed Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, under the baton of the Venezuela star conductor Gustavo Dudamel performed to a sold out crowd at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, DC. The orchestra is part of Venezuela’s world-renowned ‘El Sistema’ music program which gives poor kids in Venezuela access to musical instruments and lessons.

Finally, AFP reports that Chavez is expected to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing Wednesday afternoon. On Tuesday, Chavez said that during his meetings in Japan, he was able to obtain $33.5 billion of investments in Venezuelan oil and gas projects.

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.

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.

March 13, 2009

Venezuelan Law Guarantees Essential Public Services

Another drug-related arrest was made in Venezuela yesterday, according to the AP. A U.S. man was detained in Monagas state for “cooperating in the crime of drug trafficking,” the Attorney General’s office said in a statement.

Venezuela’s National Assembly voted yesterday to modify the Law on Decentralization to allow federal jurisdiction over the maintenance and management of the country’s airports and highways. The BBC reports that, in debates on the issue, one lawmaker said the measure would “guarantee essential public services.”

The Economist wrongly reports that a Cargill rice factory in Venezuela was “seized.” This has not occurred, despite the fact that President Chavez made the suggestion last week in a speech. The Law on Food Security stipulates that a certain proportion of agricultural goods in Venezuela must be subject to the price controls that rein in the cost of basic foodstuffs, and producers that do not follow the law have come under scrutiny. The Economist does not report that government officials have been in talks with Polar and other food distributors to ensure that they comply.

In international news, sources report that Brazilian President Lula da Silva will discuss Venezuela at a meeting with President Obama in Washington tomorrow. The AP reports that da Silva said “I’m going to ask that the U.S. take a different view of Latin America. We’re a democratic, peaceful continent, and the U.S. has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime.” In addition to U.S.-Latin American relations, other top issues on the leaders’ agenda are biofuels, the global financial crisis.

Oil futures rose to $48 per barrel yesterday ahead of an OPEC meeting this weekend. Venezuela and China will build a joint refinery this year in Guangdong province that Bloomberg says will “reinforce their energy ties.”

Finally, Venezuela and Mexico signed a cooperation agreement on music education yesterday. Mexican students will visit Venezuelan Youth and Child Orchestras in the coming months. Mexico’s education minister said “the promotion of music in Mexico is part of a plan to improve education and culture as a way to prevent crimes.”

January 22, 2009

Venezuelan Students March on Caracas in Support of Chavez

Pro-Chavez students marched in Caracas yesterday, turning out by the hundreds (see image at right). Reports by Bloomberg and the AP focus mainly on the anti-government protests occurring in previous days. Bloomberg reports that President Chavez ordered authorities to “dissolve any disturbance,” while the AP makes the more accurate statement that the Venezuelan leader said security forces should dissolve crowds “if they turn violent.”

Government officials have publicly condemned the acts of violence and vandalism occurring at protests this week and last week. Higher Education Minister Luis Acuna said: “We can’t use the amendment to block streets. This amendment doesn’t need Molotov cocktails. What the amendment needs is a pluralist debate.”

An alarmist Washington Post op-ed today claims that the governments of Venezuela and Russia are authoritarian and eschew human rights. In Venezuela, things could not be more the opposite. Elections are free and fair, and their results do not always favor the Chavez government. Crime is indeed high and has persisted in part because Venezuela is not ruled by an “iron fist” as the op-ed claims. Where past leaders cracked down and killed civilians, Chavez has opted for slower reforms with citizen involvement. Demonstrations are not repressed; protesters have often been allowed to bring their demands before the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. They also get an enormous amount of attention in the media and abroad. Indeed, the Post op-ed is based on a visit to the U.S. Congress by opposition students. Meanwhile, many elected officials in the Venezuelan government are denied U.S. visas, as Time reported yesterday.

Another perspective is offered in an interview with political scientist Daniel Hellinger published by the Venezuela Information Office. Of the upcoming national referendum on term limits for public officials, he says: “I believe the president will win the referendum to make possible indefinite re-election. I anticipate that this will bring a predictable wave of condemnation from the media in the United States. But if the expressed will of the Venezuelan people is to allow re-election, we need to respect their decision. ”

In other news, the AP reports that Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said he hopes Obama rectifies his recent assertion that Venezuela is “a destructive force in the region.” Maduro said: “President Chavez has won 12 of the 14 elections in the past 10 years. He is the legitimate president and his leadership has gone beyond the region and helped create solidarity among the peoples of the world.”

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.”

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.

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