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Are the Elections Behind the Crackdown in Caracas?

March 3, 2015

by Alejandro Tarre

On February 20, a day after Venezuelan security agents smashed into the office of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and arrested him on conspiracy charges, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff referred to the mayor’s detention as a Venezuelan “internal matter.” Later, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released two bland statements in line with Rousseff’s comment, expressing concern and reaffirming Brazil’s commitment to act as a mediator.

This reaction was not dissimilar to the response of other important regional players, like Chile and México. Only Colombia’s tone was a bit harsher, perhaps because the country was mentioned in the accusations against Ledezma. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denied his country’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy and made a plea that the rights of opposition members be respected.

But Ledezma’s rights had been violated even during his arrest. A group of armed officers stormed the mayor’s office and forcefully dragged him away without an arrest warrant. Ledezma was indicted the next day on charges of conspiracy to help plot an American-backed coup. Five days after the arrest, a police officer shot and killed a teenage boy during an anti-government protest in the city of San Cristóbal, the epicenter of nation-wide demonstrations last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. The boy’s death spurred sporadic protests in different cities, ratcheting up tension in a country that, alongside political turmoil, is experiencing a severe economic crisis.

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Tags: Venezuelan Elections, Nicolás Maduro, Antonio Ledezma

Monday Memo: Peru-Chile Relations—Panama Hydroelectric Dam—Guatemala-Honduras Customs—São Paulo Drought—Venezuela Conspiracy Charges

February 23, 2015

by AQ Online

Allegations of Espionage Threaten Peru-Chile Relations: Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz announced on Sunday that Chilean Ambassador Roberto Ibarra would not return to his post in Peru in light of the country’s espionage complaints against Chile. On Friday, Peruvian Ambassador Francisco Rojas Samanez was recalled to Lima after Peruvian prosecutors claimed that several Peruvian naval officers sold confidential information about their navy’s surveillance of fishing boats to Chilean navy officials.  Two of the naval officers implicated in the leaks have been placed in detention. Muñoz has stated that Ibarra is “in consultations” to craft a response to the allegations “with calmness and without harsh remarks.” Peruvian president Ollanta Humala called on Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to issue assurance “that such espionage activities will never be repeated.”

Panama to Mediate Conflict Regarding Hydroelectric Dam: The Panamanian government formally announced negotiations on Saturday to address growing conflict over the construction of the Barro Blanco hydroelectric plant on the Tabasará River, which is now 95 percent complete. A neighboring Indigenous community, the Ngäbe Buglé, is demanding cancellation of the $225 million project due to environmental concerns, and local protests stalled construction work on February 9. Negotiations over the dam are to be facilitated by the UN in the district of Tolé, 400 kilometers west of Panama City, and led by a high-level committee headed by the vice president and foreign minister of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela expressed faith in the negotiations, saying, “we will do whatever we have to do in the negotiations to seek a solution. I have a lot of confidence and we will take the time that is required.” However, the president of the Regional Congress of the Traditional Ngäbe Buglé, Toribio García, said the community’s opposition to the dam is “not negotiable” and announced that they would not participate in the negotiations.

Guatemala to Eliminate Customs Duties with Honduras: Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina set a deadline of mid-December 2015 to eliminate customs duties between Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to improve both countries’ trade. Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Raúl Morales also confirmed that three shared land border crossings between the two countries could also be phased out, and expressed hope that El Salvador and Nicaragua would eventually join the partnership. The plan is part of a coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants fleeing to the U.S. border in the summer of 2014. In September 2014, the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras formed the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a joint development plan that included eliminating customs to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The Northern Triangle’s combined population is 29 million and has the highest poverty levels in Latin America. The plan has received support from the Obama administration.

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Tags: Peru-Chile espionage, Hydroelectric dam, Guatemala-Honduras customs, Brazil Drought, Venezuela conspiracy, Nicolás Maduro, Antonio Ledezma

Maduro Enajenado de la Realidad Venezolana

February 20, 2015

by Paula Ramón

Luego de superar el único intento de golpe de Estado registrado en los últimos 15 años, el entonces presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, ordenó la detención de Henrique Capriles Radonski—un joven alcalde opositor—quien debía manejar la seguridad de la Embajada de Cuba en medio de la crisis política nacional. 

El confuso incidente—Capriles afirma que intentaba mediar entre opositores y los diplomáticos de La Habana, mientras que el gobierno lo acusaba de poner en peligro a la delegación—nunca fue esclarecido. Capriles, siendo alcalde electo del municipio Baruta, permaneció cuatro meses detenido en la sede de la dirección de inteligencia sin un proceso judicial. Los cargos fueron descartados en 2006. 

En 2014, Nicolás Maduro, heredero político de Chávez, y Leopoldo López, el exalcalde de Chacao, repitieron el capítulo de 2002. López, un joven economista egresado de Harvard, fue compañero de partido de Capriles durante algunos años y se convirtieron en la nueva cara de la política venezolana. Jóvenes, exitosos y con aparente ambición política, han sido blancos constantes de la “revolución bolivariana.” El año pasado el gobierno ordenó la detención de López, quien el 12 de febrero había liderado una protesta estudiantil demandando la renuncia de Maduro. Después de entregarse voluntariamente, López ha permanecido recluido en una cárcel militar, sin derecho a visitas, por un año. ¿La acusación? Golpismo. 

Este jueves 19 de febrero, el jefe de Estado pidió cárcel para el alcalde mayor de Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, quien luego fue detenido por la policía política en un operativo poco claro. Doce horas después del arresto, ninguna información oficial ha sido divulgada, excepto el “Ledezma va a ser procesado” que Maduro esbozó la misma noche del jueves.

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Tags: Nicolás Maduro, Leopoldo Lopez, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

La barbarie venezolana

February 10, 2015

by Paula Ramón

El año comenzó con eventos que conmocionaron al mundo y llamaron a reflexionar sobre seguridad, radicalismo y civilización. Venezuela no fue inmune al contexto internacional. El 31 de enero de 2015, Caracas difundió una nota de pesar por el asesinato del periodista japonés Kenji Goto. En tres párrafos, el presidente Nicolás Maduro condenaba “enérgicamente” su decapitación. En las últimas líneas ratificaba que su gobierno abogaba "por el respeto a la vida y la tolerancia”. 

Esto en un país que cerró 2014 como el segundo con mayor homicidios de la región, 82 por cada 100 mil habitantes (24.980 personas), según el reporte del Observatorio de la Violencia, ONG venezolana que monitoriza el tema en el país. El único “balance” oficial del gobierno venezolano al respecto fue el dado por la ministra de Interior y Justicia, Carmen Meléndez, quien el 5 de enero se limitó a decir que la tasa de homicidio en el país “ha bajado, un poco”. 

En la primera semana de enero, en la principal morgue de Caracas ya contabilizaban el ingreso de 100 cadáveres para 2015, según la prensa nacional. Una semana cualquiera en la capital nacional. 

Las cifras pueden transmitir la gravedad de la situación venezolana, pero no el día a día de un país cuya cotidianidad fue transfigurada. Restaurantes y lugares nocturnos modificaron sus horarios y comenzaron a operar con detectores de metales en las puertas para evitar el ingreso de armas. Carteles prohibiendo el porte de pistolas proliferan por todas partes, como si estar armado fuese algo normal. Caminar se ha vuelto un deporte de riesgo, y el territorio nacional es una zona roja, donde estar vivo es un regalo divino o un exceso de suerte.

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Tags: Venezuelan economy, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan Protests

Secretary-General of UNASUR, Nicolás Maduro Meet in Caracas

February 5, 2015

by AQ Online

Ernesto Samper, Secretary-General of the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR) traveled to Caracas Wednesday to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and discuss efforts to reinitiate talks between Venezuela and the United States. The two met Wednesday evening in a private meeting at the Miraflores Palace.

Maduro announced the planned arrival of Samper during his weekly address to the nation on Tuesday night, during which he also accused the Obama administration of attempting to orchestrate a “bloody coup” against the Venezuelan government. The partnership with UNASUR would be aimed at building a “diplomacy of peace, dialogue, and understanding, so as to stop aggression against Venezuela,” Maduro said.

In addition to UNASUR, Maduro also broadcast his outreach to the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) through its president pro-tempore, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, who Maduro said would lend support to a collaborative effort among UNASUR nations to fight the alleged U.S. conspiracy against Venezuela.

Earlier this week, the U.S. government implemented sanctions against Venezuelan officials accused of corruption, narco-trafficking and human rights violations, as part of a sanctions bill signed by U.S. President Barack Obama in December of last year.  The Venezuelan government has vehemently fought back against the bill, which places travel restrictions and freezes the accounts of the alleged human rights abusers and their families.

For more on Venezuela’s foreign policy, check out Víctor Mijares’ article in the new Winter 2015 issue of AQ.

Tags: Nicolás Maduro, Ernesto Samper, Venezuela-U.S. relations

Paralyzed on Economic Reforms, Venezuela Will Mortgage Citgo

February 3, 2015

by Thomas O'Donnell

Since before the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in March 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has remained paralyzed to enact reforms needed to escape the economic dysfunction Chávez left behind.  

In his latest national address on the economy on January 21, Maduro finally acknowledged the recession and shortages faced by Venezuelan citizens. Yet, he failed again to clearly implement any of the pragmatic economic reforms[1] advocated by Rafael Ramírez, the former minister of energy and former president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Petroleum of Venezuela—PDVSA)— such as a de facto bolívar-to-dollar devaluation via unification of Venezuela’s multi-tier foreign exchange (FX) system, measures to attract more foreign financing for oil production, and removing internal price controls, especially for gasoline.  Meanwhile, in September 2014, Ramírez was demoted to foreign minister, and then to UN ambassador several months later.

According to insiders, Maduro’s failure to implement pragmatic reforms stems principally from two sources. First, within the raging confrontation over economic policy between “pragmatic” and “ideological” factions of the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV), Maduro has found himself both dependent on militant chavistacolectivos,” and simultaneously at risk of these groups turning against him.  These often-armed, barrio-based gangs are aligned with the PSUV’s ideological faction and have no patience for pragmatic economic reforms.  

Second, Maduro faces low voter approval ratings due to the continued collapse of the Venezuelan economy.  As a result, he clearly fears triggering a popular backlash against the pain that reforms would bring in the near-to-medium term—and the danger that the ideological wing of his party would seize upon any such opportunity to denounce him as a “neoliberal” and push him from power.

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Tags: Venezuela, Citgo Petroleum, Nicolás Maduro

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

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