VIO News Blog

April 22, 2009

Sometimes a Handshake is Just a Handshake

More articles are circulating regarding the several brief meetings between Presidents Chavez and Obama this past weekend. Reuters reports that President Obama received a sharp rebuke from several Republican politicians for these meetings. Obama dismissed their concerns by mentioning that the 2008 presidential campaign proved that American voters want engagement. “The American people didn’t buy it,” Obama said, referring to the argument that U.S. engagement towards foreign leaders could be perceived as “weakness.” The two countries have already begun talks on reinstating ambassadors.

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

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

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

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April 15, 2009

Venezuela and Colombia make Bilateral Agreements

President Chavez yesterday called for Colombia’s FARC rebels to lay down their arms for four months as a way to revive peace talks with the Colombian government. The AP asserts that the remarks are a toughening of Chavez’s stance against the FARC, just a few days before the Summit of the Americas meeting at which both President Chavez and U.S. President Obama will be present. However, President Chavez’s remarks are not new developments – he has repeatedly called for the FARC to lay down their arms and enter into dialogue with the Colombian government.

Chavez also met with President Uribe of Colombia yesterday in Caracas. The two leaders signed various agreements aimed at boosting bilateral trade, energy supplies, and credit, Dow Jones reports.

On Tuesday, President Chavez appointed Jacqueline Farias as administrator of Caracas. The new post will serve as a direct link between the federal government and the city’s opposition-aligned mayor. The AP reports that Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma accuses the government of trying to subordinate his authority, however pro-Chavez lawmaker Jose Albornoz denied that the new law is politically motivated and stated that it will help improve basic services in the city, like trash collection.

In regional news, Bolivian President Evo Morales ended his five-day hunger strike yesterday, as Bolivian lawmakers finally passed a law allowing the president to run for re-election in December. In January, Bolivians approved a new constitution which requires fresh presidential elections.

April 7, 2009

Venezuela Hails US Initiative to Free the World from Nuclear Weapons

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

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

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

March 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.

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 10, 2009

Venezuela Refutes State Department Report on Drugs

The Washington Times reports on the last U.S. State Department drug report under the Bush administration, issued a couple of weeks ago, which leveled accusations against three key government officials in Venezuela. The men are Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, an aide to President Chavez, and high-level anti-drug officials Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva. Venezuelan officials have refuted this and other aspects of the report as politicized, and say its findings are false and contradict those of other studies. “The biggest support for narco-trafficking comes from the nation of the north,” Chavez said.

Coca-Cola will likely cooperate with a request by President Chavez to relocate a Caracas bottling plant and turn over the site to the impoverished local community, the AP reports. This is according to a statement released yesterday, which said Coca-Cola expects the government can “bring about proposals and alternatives that benefit everyone. The Financial Times reports that Chavez said Sunday that the land is needed for housing, but suggests that the leader is “targeting” Coke as part of an “assault” on the private sector. Despite what the Times states, “expropriations” are not the norm in Venezuela, where the government follows laws requiring compensate private owners for their assets.

In other economic news, Reuters reports that the Venezuelan government clarified plans to create a Venezuelan Aluminum Corp to unify the sector. That institution will coordinate policy among different aluminum producers, but will not merge them. Japan owns 20 percent of one of the country’s main aluminum plants, Venalum.

March 6, 2009

Lula and Obama likely to Discuss Chavez in March

The Associated Press reports that President Chavez has given Brazil’s President Da Silva permission to discuss Venezuela with President Obama when the two leaders meet March 14th in Washington. “We don’t need any intermediary to speak with any government on the planet, but since it’s Lula and in good faith, I told him yes, that I gave him the green light,” Chavez stated. President Chavez has repeated his willingness to meet with Barack Obama to discuss bilateral relations and issues affecting both countries, including the global recession.

A Time Magazine article discusses how Cuban-American politicians are trying to appeal to Venezuelans residing in South Florida, stating that a majority of Miami Cubans now oppose continuing the 47-year long trade embargo against Cuba. Time quotes Republican representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart in a speech to Venezuelans living in South Florida saying, “Venezuelans are under a lot of pressure from Chávez, who is acting more like a dictator every day.” However, domestic and international electoral observers have consistently declared Venezuela’s elections free and fair.

The AP reports that Venezuela has expropriated 3,700 acres of land from an Irish businessman that produced eucalyptus for cardboard manufacturing. President Chavez stated that according to Venezuelan law, the land should be used to grow food. The state will allow agricultural cooperatives to grow corn and beans on the land.

Finally, the Petare district of Caracas reports a 20% drop in murder rates compared to figures from February 2008, according to AFP.

March 4, 2009

Venezuelan Government Announces Cabinet and Ministry Changes

Reuters reported yesterday that President Hugo Chavez reshuffled his cabinet and merged the housing ministry and social protection ministry into other ministries, to reduce government spending in the backdrop of continued low oil prices. The Wall Street Journal posted a statement by the Venezuelan government which said that “These structural movements…are aimed at boosting the dynamics for making the state’s administration more efficient for the construction of the collective welfare and interest.”

The President of Venezuela’s state oil company, Rafael Ramirez, said that PDVSA will cut costs by 40% in order to strengthen the company’s economic position as it deals with low oil prices and the impact of the global financial crisis. AP reports that the company will renegotiate contracts with oil services firms in order to lower costs.

The Wall Street Journal falsely reports that “for years, Mr. Chávez has been battling private food manufacturers and farmers for periodic shortages of foods ranging from chickens to coffee.” However, the Venezuelan government has mainly accused food processors and distributors, not farmers, of hoarding food and averting price controls. The article also erroneously states that “last weekend, Mr. Chávez announced the Venezuelan government would take over the country’s rice mills.” President Chavez merely stated that private rice processors who flout price controls and follow through with their threat to paralyze production could face expropriation.

An article in the Toronto Globe and Mail argues that President Chavez is reversing course on resource nationalism by inviting oil companies to participate in the development of the oil-rich Orinoco. However, the Venezuelan government has been soliciting bids from foreign oil companies for the development of the Orinoco fields since the summer of 2008, when oil prices had skyrocketed. The Chavez government has always welcomed partnerships in oil exploration and production, provided that Venezuela remains a majority stakeholder and that agreements respect the country’s sovereignty.

Finally, the Latin America Herald Tribune reports on Venezuela’s reaction to a statement made by Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos. On Sunday, Mr. Santos defended Colombia’s cross-border raid on guerrillas in Ecuador earlier last year, terming it a “right to legitimate defense.” Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said that Santos’ statement represents “a threat to the stability and sovereignty of the countries of the region,” and that the “arrogant attitude of Minister Santos is abominable.”

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 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.

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