En octubre de 2006, cuando el invierno comenzaba a despuntar en Alaska, los habitantes de Anchorage—ubicada a 8.600 kilómetros de Caracas—se debatían entre aceptar o no el combustible gratuito que el presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, había ofrecido para mitigar el impacto económico del cambio de estación en la localidad. Unos querían recibir el combustible debido a la crisis que azotaba a la región, en cuanto otros rechazaban al presidente venezolano por haber llamado “diablo” a su presidente, George W. Bush, durante una reunión de la Organización de las Naciones Unidas en ese año. Chávez nunca había visitado Alaska, pero había dividido a los esquimales.
Venezuela acumuló años de desigualdades sociales amparadas bajo la consigna mundialmente conocida de ser la “democracia más estable de Latinoamérica”. Caracas se convirtió en el ejemplo más claro de la debacle social: mientras los cerros se hinchaban de empobrecidos ranchos, la vida en el valle transcurría en una calma de golf, música y playas. La rabia de los marginados golpeó con la fuerza de un inesperado tsunami en febrero de 1989, amenazando a la adormecida ciudad. Las aguas volvieron a su cauce, pero Chávez, entonces un oficial, calculó el tamaño del rencor. Una década después, electo Presidente, confrontó al valle: lejos de contener las aguas, abriría las compuertas.
Los extensos discursos de Chávez carecían de improvisación. Palabras medidas, frases hechas e historias de impacto, que acentuaban la brecha—por años existente—entre ricos y pobres, fueron calando en el colectivo. Al poco tiempo, la base política del mandatario se fue limpiando de quienes apostaban por cambios en el país y se limitó a quienes exigían reconocimiento y poder después de años de olvido. No era poca cosa, los pobres en el país petrolero eran mayoría, sólo que no lo sabían.
Los defensores y adversarios del proceso revolucionario comenzaron a medir fuerzas, y Venezuela entendió el significado de la palabra “polarización”. El fenómeno que adquirió picos dramáticos entre 2002 y 2004, entró en aparente letargo luego de las aplastantes victorias electorales de un Chávez cada vez más fortalecido. Tras cada derrota, la desmoralizada clase media miraba al extranjero en busca de tiempos menos revolucionarios.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Venezuelans continue to await news on Chávez; Bolivian soldiers are released but tensions remain; Cardinals meet to discuss possible papal candidates; Argentina offers to issue new bonds for defaulted debt; and Mexico’s PRI ends its opposition to private investment in the state oil company.
Venezuelans continue to wait for news on Chávez' health
Supporters and opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez demonstrated in Caracas again this weekend after Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced on Friday that Chávez was once again undergoing chemotherapy to treat his cancer. Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in the 2012 presidential election, said Friday that Maduro was lying about Chávez' true condition. Meanwhile, Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas denied today that the government has lied about the president’s health and said that Chávez has been experiencing “highs and lows” since returning to Venezuela on February 18.
Bolivia says Chile violated international norms
Bolivian President Evo Morales announced Sunday that he would bring Chile before international authorities for detaining three Bolivian soldiers who crossed into Chile with weapons at the end of Janaury, saying the detention violated international norms for transnational cooperation on crime. The soldiers' case in Chile was suspended Friday after they agreed not to enter the country for a year. They returned to Bolivia but tensions between the two countries are continuing to escalate. Bolivia is also mounting a renewed effort to dispute its international borders with Chile; access to the Pacific Ocean was lost in 1879.
Cardinals meet to discuss the next pope
More than 140 Catholic cardinals are convening today to discuss possible papal candidates and conduct Church business. According to the Vatican, the cardinals have not yet set a date for the conclave that will determine whom to choose as Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. Vatican journalists say that possible successors to Pope Benedict, who officially stepped down as pope last Thursday, include Brazilians João Braz de Aviz and Odilo Scherer, and Argentine Leonardo Sandri.
Argentine government agrees to compromise offer on debt standoff
Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced before Congress on Friday that the country would be willing to issue new bonds for private equity fund NML Capital Ltd., which is suing the country for $1.3 billion in defaulted debt. Fernández de Kirchner had previously refused to pay the “vulture funds,” which she has accused of profiting from Argentina’s 2002 economic crisis. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will give Argentina until March 29 to explain the terms of a new debt swap.
PRI approves private investment in Pemex
Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) voted unanimously on Sunday to end its opposition to constitutional changes that would permit private investment in the state oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX). Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to send bills to Congress later this year that would propose constitutional changes to permit new energy and fiscal reforms. The PRI controls 241 of the 500 seats in Mexico’s lower house, but would need additional congressional support for the reforms to pass.
Bolivian President Evo Morales stopped in Caracas on Tuesday to visit President Hugo Chávez on route to New York City for the inauguration of the International Year of Quinoa. President Morales was greeted at the international airport by Venezuelan Foreign Vice-Minister Temir Porras, but members of the Foreign Ministry declined to comment on his agenda while in the country. The ailing president ,who had been in Cuba since his latest cancer operation last December, returned to Venezuela early Monday morning and is continuing cancer treatment at the military hospital in the country’s capital.
President Chávez announced his return via his Twitter account—which had been inactive since the beginning of November—just three days after the government released pictures of him with his daughters at a Cuban hospital. The pictures and tweets came after 67 days of silence, in which the President was shielded from the public. Despite his return, it is unlikely that the nation will hear from him soon. While Information Minister Ernesto Villegas reports that he is “conscious, with his intellectual functions intact,” he also admits that the president is breathing through a tracheal tube which makes it difficult to speak.
Speculation surrounds Chávez’ surprise return, but many believe it was meant to silence the opposition leaders who maintain that the executive is unable to run the country due to his poor health. Because the Supreme Court ruled in favor of extending the timeline for his inauguration indefinitely, he is expected to take the oath of office for his fourth term now that he is back in Venezuela. Despite this extension, Venezuela could be facing another election soon. Although he has not personally treated Chávez, Dr. Carlos Castro, the scientific director of the Colombian League against Cancer in Bogota, believes that the president’s unspecified cancer is incurable and expects the executive to have to step down due to the severity of his condition. The Venezuelan Constitution requires that a new vote be held within 30 days of a president dying or stepping down.
Thousands of members of both Hugo Chávez’ Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) and the opposition are marching in Caracas today in simultaneous demonstrations since January 23 marks the end of Venezuela’s 1945-1958 military dictatorship. However, this year the date has acquired a new meaning for each side of the political spectrum. For members of the PSUV, today’s demonstration is an opportunity to show their solidarity with Chávez, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba. Meanwhile, the opposition plans to protest the Venezuelan Supreme Court’s January 8 resolution to delay the president’s inauguration, a decision they say is unconstitutional.
Venezuelan Communications and Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said yesterday that Hugo Chávez recently met in Cuba with Venezuela’s newly-appointed foreign minister, Elías Jaua. Still, great uncertainty surrounds the question of when Chávez will return to Venezuela. More than a month has passed since the president's last public appearance, which was prior to his cancer surgery in mid-December.
Vice President of the National Assembly and leader of the PSUV Darío Vivas said that Chavismo will march today “out of respect and solidarity” with Chávez and his delicate health situation. For Marino Gonzalez, adjunct secretary of the Venezuelan opposition umbrella group known as the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática—MUD,“this is an opportunity for Venezuelans to defend their Constitution and to open the door for democracy in the country.”
Beginning around 10:00 am local time (9:30 am EST), Chávez supporters assembled at three points in the city—Colegio de Ingenieros, Los Símbolos and Propatria—while the opposition congregated in Parque Miranda. Major streets in Caracas are closed for today’s demonstrations.
Heads of state of Mercosur member countries are meeting in the Brazilian capital today, marking the first time that Venezuela will participate as a full member in the South American trade bloc after Paraguay’s suspension in June paved the way for its membership. But health concerns are preventing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from joining his counterparts from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, with Minister of Petroleum and Mining Rafael Ramirez participating in his place.
The Venezuelan president arrived in Venezuela this morning after 10 days of medical treatment in Cuba. Chávez, 58, was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011, and since then, has had three cancer surgeries on the island. His prolonged absences have triggered rumors around his health, and bonds have surged as a result of increased uncertainty over Venezuela’s future. When asked about his absence, Chávez explained that his departure from Cuba was delayed by a conversation with Fidel Castro, with whom he had been discussing poetry. He also asserted that Venezuela is “eight days away from the next victory,” referring to the upcoming regional elections that will take place on December 16.
Chávez has been absent from every regional meeting in the past year, including the Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia, in April and the Ibero-American summit held in Cadiz, Spain, in November.
One of the central points on today’s agenda is Paraguay’s suspension from Mercosur, following the impeachment of former President Fernando Lugo in June. Paraguay’s suspension will likely continue after the meeting and will likely be extended until a newly-elected president takes office in August 2013.
A large crowd of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s supporters blocked a main road near an airport Wednesday prior to the arrival of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. The crowd congregated near the Bartolomé Salom airport in the coastal town of Puerto Cabello, causing turmoil during Capriles’ campaign rally. A truck and motorcycle were set ablaze and both sides hurled rocks, giving 14 people minor injuries.
At an outdoor rally afterwards, Capriles said, “Those actions aren’t spontaneous. There’s someone responsible for those actions.” Referring to Hugo Chávez without mentioning the president’s name, he added, “It’s you who wants that scenario. It’s you who wants to sow fear.”
Chávez recently claimed that his rival has a hidden right-wing agenda “that would lead Venezuela to a civil war.” As the melee erupted, some of the red-shirted government supporters went into the airport compound and carried away speakers and a generator. In a separate incident, the AFP and Reuters reported that one of their assigned photographers was beaten and kicked as Chávez supporters attempted to get hold of his camera.
Jorge Rodríguez, Chávez's presidential campaign manager, blamed government opponents and said that the Carabobo police, which are under Governor Henrique Salas' command, attacked Chavez's supporters. He said the crowd had "a right to protest and demonstrate freely" against Capriles’ visit.
Carabobo state Governor Henrique Salas Feo, a Chávez adversary, condemned the violence on television and said, “the country needs peace.” Yesterday was the third time in less than a month that Capriles has visited Carabobo state, and each time his presence has sparked altercations between Venezuela’s current administration and the opposing party.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ government has intimidated, censored and prosecuted critics and opposition leaders, according to a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday. The 133-page report, titled "Tightening the Grip: Concentration and Abuse of Power in Chávez's Venezuela," documents how the socialist leader has eroded human rights and consolidated control over the Venezuelan media, the courts—including the Supreme Court—and civil society.
“For years, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Citing a number of cases, the report accuses the Chávez’ administration of limiting the public’s access to government information, attacking and intimidating local rights defenders, and censoring major media outlets like Globovisión and RCTV.
The Human Rights Watch report was published three months before the October 7 presidential election that will pit Chávez against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. A June survey by Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis released on Monday shows that Chávez leads his challenger by 15.3 percentage points, down from 15.9 points in May. Still, Caprilles continues to hold rallies across the country, including one held in Caracas on Sunday to highlight the high levels of crime and insecurity that have plagued the capital during Chávez' 13-year presidency.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said Wednesday “it would be deeply regrettable” if Venezuela were to leave the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). President Hugo Chávez announced on Monday that Venezuela would seek to withdraw from the inter-governmental body, describing it as “a mechanism that the United States uses against us.” The IACHR is an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States tasked with the promotion and protection of human rights in the hemisphere.
Also on Monday, Chávez named various allies to seats on a newly created advisory body, the State Council, and tasked the committee with assessing the process for withdrawal. On Wednesday, the Venezuelan State representative for human rights, Germán Saltrón, argued that the IACHR is biased against Venezuela, and claimed that it endorsed the April 2002 attempted coup to unseat Chávez. Venezuela, said Saltrón, “is a democratic country and no one can come here to claim the moral high ground on human rights.” He added that the withdrawal may take one year.
Speaking to reporters during a daily press briefing yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “Washington considers the body an effective and unique organization within the hemisphere.” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), president of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, said that with his proposal to withdraw Venezuela from the body, Chávez “again is trying to silence advocates of human rights throughout the hemisphere… [which] will have widespread negative implications for democracy and fundamental freedoms.” In Americas Quarterly, IACHR Executive Secretary Santiago Canton has called the commission “a crucial tool against injustice—exceeding the imagination of its founders and mak¬ing it a force in the hemisphere and an example in the world.”
Last month, the IACHR released its 2011 annual report, which denounced the Venezuelan government’s political intolerance and violence against unionists, women and rural farmers.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.