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Maduro Addresses Venezuelans about Faltering Economy

January 22, 2015

by AQ Online

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro made his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, defending his government’s socialist economic model and accusing the Venezuelan political opposition of waging an “economic war” that has led to the country’s current financial crisis.

That crisis has worsened in recent weeks as global oil prices have plummeted and the price of Venezuelan crude, the country's chief export, fell from $98 per barrel in 2013 to just $39 per barrel this week. Venezuela’s inflation rate, which Maduro estimated at more than 64 percent last year, is currently the highest in the Americas. The IMF’s Alejandro Werner predicted on Wednesday that Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent in 2015, and Maduro said in his speech that the economy had contracted 2.8 percent in 2014.

Maduro was expected to announce possible cuts to social spending and a devaluation of the bolivar during his speech. However, while Maduro said he was willing to consider raising the price of gasoline and restructuring the country’s three-tiered exchange rate system, he rejected the idea of a currency devaluation and instead announced that social spending would continue, promising to wage raises and pensions by 15 percent and build more low-income housing.

Supporters of Maduro’s government are expected to rally on Friday, prior to a planned opposition protest march on Saturday.

Tags: Venezuela, Venezuelan economy, Nicolás Maduro

Monday Memo: Panama Canal – Venezuela Diplomacy – 114th U.S. Congress – Guatemala Trial – Uruguay Elections

January 5, 2015

by AQ Online

This week's likely top stories: the Panama Canal gears up to expand its Pacific coast facilities; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro travels to China and OPEC countries; the 114th U.S. Congress starts its session on Tuesday with a Republican majority and plenty of hot button issues for the Americas; the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide resumes; Uruguayan First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirms she will run for mayor of Montevideo in 2015.

Panama Prepares to Expand its Pacific Canal Facilities: On Saturday, the Panama Canal Authority approved the development of a new transshipment port in the Corozal region, the canal’s entrance to the Pacific Ocean. This two-phased expansion project will improve the port’s capacity on the Pacific side from five to eight million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) by 2020 through the construction of a 2,081 linear-meter dock, a container yard, offices and warehouse facilities within a 120-hectare area. The new terminal will also include port facilities capable of accommodating mid-size cargo ships that can pass through the canal. Aware of impending competition from Nicaragua, which inaugurated the construction of its own canal megaproject on the Pacific Coast just before Christmas, Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge Luis Quijano said, “This new facility will increase inter-oceanic cargo traffic, consolidating Panama’s position as an international logistics and maritime hub.” The Panama National Assembly will review the bill for final approval this week before issuing a call for bids from construction companies for a twenty year contract.

Maduro Packs His Bags for an Economic Relief World Tour: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro left Caracas on Sunday night to commence an urgent diplomatic mission to China and several as-yet-unspecified Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations in pursuit of assistance to lift Venezuela out of recession. China, Maduro’s first stop on his economic tour, is Venezuela’s principal foreign lender and is keeping Venezuelan state welfare projects afloat through an $8 billion oil-for-loan agreement. Maduro is expected to discuss financing options with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would help Venezuela meet its debt obligations and tamp down inflation. Since Venezuela’s economy has suffered from OPEC’s decision in November not to curtail oil output despite the price drop, Maduro will visit OPEC countries in the second leg of his trip with the hopes of establishing “a strategy for recovering the price [of oil] and strengthening the organization.” Venezuela’s oil basket has fallen nearly 50 percent, to about $47 dollars per barrel since the summer, with each dollar drop in oil prices costing the government an estimated $700 million per year in revenue.

Republican-controlled U.S. Congress Convenes: The 114th U.S. Congress will start its session in Washington DC on Tuesday, with a Republican majority set to take over the Senate and continue control of the House of Representatives. The new Congress is expected to clash with President Barack Obama over policy on Cuba-U.S. relations, immigration, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which failed to win approval in Congress last year. In November, Obama announced executive action to provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba in mid-December after more than five decades. However, Cuban authorities’ arrest of dissidents at the end of the year has amplified concerns about the state of human rights on the island, and some members of Congress who have opposed improved relations have suggested that the Senate may refuse to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Cuba. Meanwhile, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that a bill approving the Keystone pipeline will be an early priority for Republican lawmakers, though it could still be vetoed by Obama.

Genocide Trial Resumes for Guatemala’s Ríos Montt: After 14 months, the trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges—for his alleged role in ordering 15 massacres of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Maya from 1982 to 1983 during Guatemala’s Civil War—resumes today. While the former president was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison in May 2013, Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) upheld a measure that annulled the verdict and required that the trial resume where it stood on April 19, 2013, claiming that the general had been denied due process. Ríos Montt will not appear at his trial proceedings, which begin today and will presided over by Tribunal President Janeth Valdez, due to his health.  At 88, he remains under military house arrest in an upscale neighborhood of Guatemala City.

Uruguayan First Lady to Run for Mayor of Montevideo: Uruguayan Senator and First Lady Lucia Topolansky confirmed she will run for mayor of Montevideo in the May 2015 elections. Topolansky, who is married to outgoing Uruguayan President José Mujica, is a member of the Movimiento de Participación Popular (Movement of Popular Participation—MPP) political party, the largest voting bloc within the ruling left-wing Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front—FA). The Uruguayan first lady accepted the candidacy on some conditions, including a respectful campaign against Daniel Martínez, another FA candidate from the Uruguayan Socialist Party who is competing in the mayoral race. With Topolansky as mayor, the MPP would control Uruguay’s main electoral region and add to the FA’s absolute majority in the legislature.

Tags: Panama Canal, Nicolás Maduro, U.S. Congress, Guatemala civil war, Lucia Topolansky

Un barril de problemas para Venezuela

December 23, 2014

by Paula Ramón

Ernesto Villegas, director de propaganda del Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), aseguró hace dos semanas que si el petróleo venezolano llegase a cotizarse a 7 dólares por barril, la “revolución bolivariana no caería, se fortalecería”. La afirmación parece aventurada, incluso para los dirigentes del chavismo, acostumbrados a permear la realidad nacional con desconexos jingles publicitarios.

Entre noviembre y diciembre, el dólar paralelo en Venezuela pasó de 95 BsF a 165 BsF, valor que aumenta a tanta velocidad, que ha sido necesario actualizar la cifra tres veces para estas líneas. El Banco Central reportó en septiembre una inflación anual de 63,4%, y aunque no hay balances más recientes, la expectativa es que llegue a los tres dígitos en 2015. No hay números oficiales sobre la escasez de alimentos y productos durante el último trimestre, pero las filas en los mercados dan una idea de la disparidad entre oferta y demanda. 

Es en ese contexto que Villegas opina sobre la caída del precio del barril de petróleo venezolano, que la semana pasada cerró en 51,26 dólares, casi 40 por debajo de los 90,19 dólares registrados a comienzos de septiembre, cuando comenzó un desplome en la cotización del crudo que no ocurría desde 2008. 

La desvalorización del principal producto de exportación nacional—que costea 95% de los dólares que ingresan al país—ha venido a dificultar aún más las cosas para la comprometida gestión de Nicolás Maduro, elegido en abril de 2013 para un período de seis años. Al contrario de Villegas, el heredero político de Hugo Chávez no ha desestimado radicalmente la gravedad de la situación: “30% (de desvalorización) no es poca cosa”, llegó a reconocer el mandatario en un acto público dos semanas atrás. 

Con el desplome petrolero, la primera medida del gobierno fue enviar al canciller—y antiguo ministro de Petróleo y Minería—Rafael Ramírez, a una gira por la Organización de Países Exportadores de Petróleo (OPEP), para convencer a sus socios de la necesidad de reducir la producción para aumentar los precios. El saldo fue negativo: a pesar del urgente pedido venezolano, prevaleció la decisión de mantener las cuotas inalterables. 

El actual escenario ha dejado a Maduro pocas alternativas y la promesa de un 2015 difícil. Una de las decisiones que parece inevitable es el aumento de la gasolina, cuyo precio congelado hace 15 años ha creado una desigualdad tan absurda que con el costo de medio litro de agua mineral, es posible comprar el combustible para abastecer seis carros familiares. 

Acabar con el subsidio—que le cuesta al Estado 12.500 millones de dólares por año—implica un doble desafío: por años, Chávez evitó el tema por temor a repetir el estallido social que selló la suerte de Carlos Andrés Pérez en 1989, por lo que Maduro, además de tener que tomar una medida que golpea un punto de honor para la sociedad, golpeando su ya menguada popularidad, reconocería de forma tácita que la economía venezolana enfrenta su peor momento en muchos años. 

La reducción de ingresos también podría obligar al gobierno a realizar ajustes económicos para 2015—entre ellos una devaluación de la moneda, cuya cotización oficial—a 6,30 BsF, 12 BsF y 55 BsF—se mantiene alejada del cambio negro que determina el mercado nacional. Un estudio del Bank of America Merrill Lynch afirma que “por cada dólar de caída en los precios del petróleo, el sector público pierde 770 millones de dólares en ingresos netos”, y advierte que de continuar la tendencia, el Estado venezolano necesitaría un financiamiento adicional de 12 mil millones de dólares. 

En 2013, cuando el precio del barril petrolero superaba los 100 dólares, el Congreso sancionó un presupuesto nacional calculado con una tasa de 60 dólares por barril. El objetivo era tener un margen de acción en caso de que los precios disminuyeran. En aquella época, el entonces ministro de finanzas sostuvo que los retos para el país eran aumentar la producción nacional y controlar el dólar paralelo, en aras de evitar un mayor incremento inflacionario. No sólo no se alcanzaron los objetivos, sino que además el país no consiguió tirar provecho de la diferencia de precios que por años le fue favorable.

El reciente anuncio del restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas entre Cuba y los Estados Unidos es una señal aún más clara de que el futuro de Venezuela es desalentador. Raúl Castro, en un gesto sin precedentes, ha dejado a la deriva a su benefactor, aislando a la “revolución bolivariana” en su momento más crítico. 

La Habana parece haber aprendido la lección: la caída de los precios del petróleo a finales de la década de los 80 fue uno de los factores que contribuyó al fin de la Unión Soviética, entonces colaboradora de la isla. A finales de los 90, la ayuda de Hugo Chávez sirvió para minimizar los estragos ocasionados por el declive de Moscú. Durante casi una década, Venezuela ha enviado diariamente 100 mil barriles de petróleo a la isla, a cambio de asistencia médica, académica y deportiva. 

De nuevo frente al ocaso de un gran aliado, y apenas dos meses después de la muerte de Hugo Chávez, Castro emprendió una negociación osada que salvase a su gobierno de atravesar por otro “período especial”. Las varias décadas en la senda revolucionaria parecen pesar, y es que mientras Cuba abraza a los Estados Unidos, Venezuela abraza al vacío. 

Tags: Nicolás Maduro, President Raul Castro, oil prices

Obama Signs Venezuela Sanctions

December 19, 2014

by AQ Online

President Obama signed a bill yesterday authorizing sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of protesters in the South American country earlier this year. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the measure, tweeting, “I reject the insolent measures taken against Venezuela by the Imperial Elite of the Unites States; Bolivar’s Fatherland is to be Respected.”

Under the sanctions, Venezuelans accused of being involved in the repression of anti-government protesters in protests earlier this year could see their assets frozen or visas denied or revoked. According to an unnamed U.S. embassy official, ”These sanctions are not against the Venezuelan people, or against the Venezuelan government as a whole, but against individuals accused of violations.”

Analysts point out that the sanctions may offer Maduro a convenient scapegoat. Invoking the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said “The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function. It’s a way of deflecting attention form the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”

Tags: Venezuela sanctions, Venezuela-U.S. relations, Nicolás Maduro

U.S. Senate Sanctions Venezuela on Human Rights

December 10, 2014

by AQ Online

The U.S. Senate approved a bill on Monday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials found responsible for violating demonstrators’ rights during anti-government protests that left more than 40 dead and 800 injured since February. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act authorizes sanctions that would freeze assets and ban visas of individuals that authorized, directed or otherwise assisted the government in infringing on “the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly” of protesters.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the bill, which was passed by a voice vote. “For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” said Menendez. The House passed a similar bill in May with a broader number of targets, but the Obama administration insisted sanctions would interfere with negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Earlier this month, White House officials signaled they would be willing to move forward with additional sanctions.   

On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted the “insolent imperialist sanctions” and accused the U.S. of meddling in his country’s affairs. The Maduro government has already faced international criticism for its heavy-handed response to the mostly peaceful demonstrations. In May, the United Nations condemned the violence and called for the government to adhere to its human rights obligations.

The new U.S. Senate bill comes as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez continues to be held in prison, while Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado was recently accused of plotting to overthrow the Maduro administration. The Senate’s version of the bill must now be passed in the House, and signed by President Obama for it to become law.

Tags: Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, Human Rights

Venezuelan Opposition Leader Charged with Conspiracy

December 4, 2014

by AQ Online

The Venezuelan state prosecutor’s office formally charged former Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado with  treason and conspiracy for allegedly plotting to kill President Nicolas Maduro this Wednesday.

The indictment comes after a chain of emails plotting to start a coup to overthrow the Maduro administration surfaced in May, allegedly between U.S. officials and Machado, an opposition leader who was kicked out of the National Assembly in March after she publically supported the protests against the government earlier this year. In one email Machado reportedly wrote, “I believe the time has come to join forces, make the necessary calls, and obtain the financing to annihilate Maduro […] and the rest will come falling down.”

Machado denied all charges, claiming her email accounts were tampered with and that the accusations are an attempt to silence the opposition voice.

Venezuela’s most publically known opposition leader, Leopoldo López, has been in jail since February, despite pleas for his release from international organizations, including The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), who declared his detention illegal and ordered his immediate release. Arrest orders for conspiracy against the government were also ordered for opposition figures Henrique Salas Romer, Diego Arria, Ricardo Emilio Koesling, Gustavo Tarre Briceño, Pedro Mario Burelli, and Robert Alonso.

The public prosecutor’s office released a statement threatening to punish anyone “from inside or outside national territory” with jail time should they seek to “conspire to destroy the nation’s republican political style.” If Machado is found guilty, she could face eight to 16 years in jail.   

Tags: Maria Corina Machado, Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro

Venezuelan Opposition Leader Denied Release

November 19, 2014

by AQ Online

Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader and founder of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, appeared in court on Tuesday for the first time since the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) found his detention illegal and called for his immediate release on October 9. He had refused to appear until presiding judge Susana Barreiro ruled on the recommendation.

Judge Barreiro rejected the WGAD recommendation last week, saying that it was not binding. Using the same argument as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Barreiro argued that Venezuela is a sovereign nation and rejects international interference. López’ lawyers have appealed Judge Barreiro’s decision in the Court of Appeals.

López has been in pre-trial detention since he was arrested on February 18 for his alleged involvement in inciting violence during widespread protests. President Maduro has said that he believes that López is “responsible for crimes, violence, destruction, (loss of) human lives,” and that “he has to pay, and he's going to pay.”

Various high-profile world leaders have called for the release of López and the other political prisoners arrested during Venezuela’s tumultuous protests in February, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis I, and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. On Monday, Socialist International joined the growing lists of international groups and human rights organizations calling for López’ release.

 

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Tags: Leopoldo Lopez, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela protests

UN Finds Venezuela’s Detention of Leopoldo López Illegal

October 10, 2014

by AQ Online

The family of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López announced yesterday that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled in Opinion No. 26/2014 that López is being held illegally, and called for his release. The Working Group consists of five members appointed by the UN Human Rights Council that investigate possible cases of arbitrary detention, and they have been working on the Lopéz case since he was arrested on February 18 for the alleged incitement of violence during widespread protests.

López, the national coordinator of the opposition party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), is being held at the Ramo Verde military prison in Miranda state. In addition to determining that López’ detention was “arbitrary,” the Working Group asked the Venezuelan government for reparations for his detention. President Nicolás Maduro’s government had previously met with the Working Group to defend its treatment of López and argue against López’ claims, although they were unsuccessful. The group further noted that his imprisonment appeared to be motivated by political opinion.

The government detained hundreds of demonstrators involved in the anti-government protests that erupted in February, including Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano from San Cristobal and San Diego, respectively. The government is currently facing numerous allegations of human rights violations surrounding both the arrests and the treatment of its prisoners. International criticism of the detentions has increased in recent weeks, with calls for the release of prisoners from U.S. President Barack Obama and OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza.

Tags: Leopoldo Lopez, Nicolás Maduro, United Nations (UN)

Venezuelan Opposition Leader Has Sights Set on 2015 Elections

October 8, 2014

by AQ Online

Jesus Torrealba, the new chief of Venezuela’s Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) opposition coalition, has targeted Venezuela’s 2015 parliamentary elections as the opposition’s next strategic opportunity to end chavista rule. After narrowly losing the presidential election to President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, the opposition coalition is now looking to win a majority in the National Assembly next year in order to put pressure on the president and potentially force a recall referendum in 2016.

Although the ruling Partido Socialist Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) maintains control over the executive and legislative branches, Maduro’s administration has been beleaguered by a rapidly declining economy, 63 percent inflation, high crime rates, and shortages of basic goods.

In addition to the months-long protests against the Maduro government that engulfed several major cities in Venezuela earlier this year, the administration has also come under fire from a dissident faction on the Left critical of what it sees as a departure from the Bolivarian Revolution’s ideals. "What we have now is deterioration ...This is chavismo's worst moment ever," Gonzalo Gomez Frieire, leader of the dissident Marea Socialista (socialist tide) told Reuters.

While the MUD has historically been known as a fractured party—most notably when former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López responded differently to the popular protests in February—many see an equally fractured PSUV as the primary explanation for Maduro’s lack of an adequate response to Venezuela’s recession.

President Maduro’s approval rate dropped to 35 percent in September in light of the continued economic crisis.

Tags: Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, MUD, PSUV

Comprendiendo la Doctrina Maduro

May 21, 2014

by Víctor M. Mijares

En nombre de la Revolución Bolivariana, Hugo Chávez le dio una prioridad nunca antes vista a la política exterior venezolana. Ni en el periodo de la Doctrina Betancourt—diseñada para aislar a los regímenes autoritarios de las Américas—ni en el del Tercermundismo de primer gobierno de Carlos Andrés Pérez, tuvo Caracas un protagonismo internacional como el que experimentó bajo la revolucionaria y sobredimensionada Doctrina Chávez.

Es por ello que la tímida y defensiva posición diplomática de Venezuela en el primer año de Maduro llama la atención y genera cambios en la dinámica política hemisférica. ¿Qué pasó con la política exterior venezolana? El precio de un barril de petróleo sigue alrededor de los US $100, y Chávez parece haber dejado instrucciones precisas. Las principales piezas gabinete de gobierno son hombres de confianza de “El Comandante,” pero la política exterior venezolana es irreconocible.

Como política pública, la exterior es compleja, porque conecta a los sistemas políticos doméstico e internacional, es decir, que está sujeta a variables internas y externas. Las variables del sistema internacional—salvo graves crisis—suelen moverse de manera lenta. Aun los cambios más espectaculares requieren de meses o años de maduración antes de ocurrir. La política doméstica puede ser más volátil, sobre todo en países en los que la institucionalidad ha sido degradada sistemáticamente. Esto genera una interacción de sistemas que van a distinta velocidad. Por esta razón, el caso de la contracción de la política exterior venezolana debe ser coyunturalmente analizado a partir de factores de política doméstica.

De los factores a analizar podemos destacar dos íntimamente vinculados: la desprofesionalización diplomática y la ausencia del líder fuerte. Ambos corresponden al proceso de desinstitucionalización propio del personalismo político. El primero es responsabilidad directa del mismo Chávez. Contrario al resto de las potencias regionales y potencias medias—y buena parte de las menores—latinoamericanas, Venezuela partidizó su academia diplomática y en la práctica abolió la carrera del servicio exterior. Este proceso fortaleció al presidente, a su partido, pero debilitó al Estado en su conjunto. La muerte de Chávez pone en evidencia a una política exterior altamente dependiente de la discrecionalidad, sin que existan instituciones que permitan darle continuidad, ni siquiera a la propia promoción revolucionaria en el exterior.

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Tags: Venezuela, foreign policy, Nicolás Maduro

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