Cuando Hugo Chávez asumió la presidencia de Venezuela en 1999, apenas 11 por ciento de la población era rural. En diciembre pasado, al despedirse de la nación a la cual gobernó por más de una década, la cifra había caído a 6 por ciento. Promesas de una revolucionaria reforma agraria, millones de dólares en créditos y decenas de proyectos para garantizar un país autosustentable en materia alimenticia, sólo consiguieron menguar, aún más, las extensas tierras de cultivo de la nación petrolera.
Un año antes, el mandatario lanzó la Gran Misión Vivienda. La justificativa era simple: con un déficit de 2,7 millones de casas, el gobierno metía el ojo en el drama que, al igual que la disminución de la población rural, era, según su perspectiva, “herencia del capitalismo. No habrá otra vía de solucionarlo que con socialismo y más socialismo”.
Esta semana, su sucesor, Nicolás Maduro, parece haber reparado en un detalle: el socialismo, per se, no compra cemento ni levanta edificios. Durante una alocución, afirmó que para que la misión sea viable, los beneficiarios deben pagar el techo que recibieron. “Hemos entregado 381 mil viviendas pero nadie está pagando ni medio. Cómo vamos a sostener la misión para las viviendas de los próximos años? haciendo magia?”. Maduro hizo una aclaratoria que, en años de revolución, ningún funcionario de gobierno se atrevió a pronunciar: “las cosas no pueden ser regaladas”.
Días antes, Lorenzo Mendoza, el director de Empresas Polar, la principal marca de alimentos del país, lanzó al ruedo otra idea que los venezolanos no escuchaban en mucho tiempo: privatización. El joven empresario respondió las acusaciones del gobierno quien lo responsabiliza de ser uno de los artífices de la crisis alimenticia que atraviesa Venezuela. Mendoza hizo pública su disposición a comprar o alquilar plantas en manos del Estado para incrementar las existencias.
El gobierno de Chávez estuvo marcado por nacionalizaciones que, en muchos casos, fueron injustificadas y costaron caro a las arcas nacionales. Poco a poco, la estatal Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) fue asumiendo los gastos de los servicios públicos, educación, salud, infraestructura, banca, propaganda política, y hasta, favores internacionales. Los excedentes petroleros sirvieron para pagar, desde los grandes proyectos sociales del mandatario hasta los conos color naranja que se utilizan en la señalización del tráfico a diario.
El lucro no ha sido el leitmotiv del gobierno socialista, y así, con la intervención del Estado, muchas empresas pasaron de ser operaciones rentables a cargas económicas.
En el rubro de alimentos, no fueron pocas las veces que el gobierno encendió las cámaras para mostrar a los venezolanos ruidosas expropiaciones que democratizarían la tierra, inauguraciones de plantas procesadoras que abastecerían el país, entrega de crédito para cooperativas que trabajarían el campo, pero todos los proyectos dieron al traste dejando al Estado propietario de equipos, complejos y tierras inoperantes.
Para ejemplificar la situación, basta remitirse al componente base de la dieta venezolana que es la harina de maíz, producto estrella de Empresas Polar. De las 24 instalaciones procesadoras del alimento, 3 pertenecen a la marca, 3 a otros capitales privados, y las 18 restantes al Estado. Con apenas 12 por ciento de las plantas, Polar abastece a 48 por ciento del mercado nacional, de acuerdo con los cálculos de Mendoza.
Pero sus cifras presentan un contraste, aún mayor, con el trabajo que el Estado ejecuta en materia alimenticia. Mendoza, quien raramente respondía de forma directa a Chávez, indicó que las políticas gubernamentales han dificultado las operaciones de Empresas Polar en los últimos años. Falta de divisas para la compra de insumos, retrasos en los puertos, alzas en los precios de las materias primas entre 15 por ciento y 414 por ciento pero no en los precios finales de sus productos, aumento de días feriados, cortes de electricidad y la conflictividad laboral han afectado los niveles de la compañía, que para el primer trimestre del año reportó un 10 por ciento más de producción en contraste con 2012. “Hubiéramos podido producir 14 mil 500 toneladas más de alimentos, si no hubiésemos tenido que lidiar con estos inconvenientes”, dijo.
El heredero del consorcio fue más allá y, como quien olfatea el momento oportuno, señaló que a corto plazo, propondrán al gobierno la compra o alquiler de una de sus instalaciones productoras de harina de maíz, para aumentar las existencias del producto en 20 por ciento entre 12 y 14 meses, además de una alianza con el sector privado que permita, a mediano plazo, recuperar al 100 por ciento la producción de este rubro.
A pesar de que el Estado venezolano fracasó de forma evidente en el manejo y control de empresas de varios sectores, la oposición política ha aprendido que, en un país petrolero, hablar de pagos y privatizaciones puede ser un error letal que cuesta caro en elecciones. En 1989, cuando el entonces presidente intentó explicarle al país que las cosas no podían ser regaladas y que la única forma de enfrentar la crisis del momento era con ajustes económicos severos, una explosión social sacudió los cimientos de la capital. La revuelta fue controlada, pero el mandatario no vería el final de su período.
Años después vino Chávez con sus promesas de un mundo nuevo, lleno de reivindicaciones para los pobres, sólo que otra vez, la euforia parece haber pasado, y es Maduro a quien le tocará explicar temas que ni su candidato opositor, Henrique Capriles, tuvo que encarar en la campaña electoral: incluso en tiempos revolucionarios, “las cosas no pueden ser regaladas”.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Barack Obama will speak about closing Guantánamo Bay; Venezuela says it is open to normalizing relations with the United States; the FARC says that more time is necessary for peace negotiations; an OAS report calls for a discussion on marijuana legalization; and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos will likely seek a second term as president.
Obama to Deliver Speech on Guántanamo: U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to discuss the Guántanamo Bay detention center when he delivers a speech on counterterrorism practices this Thursday. As of Sunday, 103 prisoners at Guántanamo were on a hunger strike protesting prison searches that the inmates say involved rough treatment of the Quran. Thirty of the striking inmates are reportedly being force-fed through feeding tubes. Meanwhile, Obama has renewed his commitment to closing the controversial prison, where many inmates have been held for over a decade without being charged.
Venezuela Open to Normalizing Relations with United States: Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said during a TV interview on Sunday that Venezuela would "remain open to normalizing relations" with the United States. Recently-elected president, Nicolás Maduro, has selected Calixto Ortega as a potential Venezuelan envoy to the United States. Jaua said that the appointment of Ortega was motivated by the fact that the U.S. remains Venezuela’s top trade partner. U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to congratulate Maduro for his narrow victory in the country’s April 14 election.
FARC Leader Says Rebels Need More Time for Negotiation: As the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) and the Colombian government marked six months of peace negotiations on Sunday, lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez said the FARC needs more time to negotiate a "solid basis to build stable and long-lasting peace." The negotiators are struggling to reach an agreement on agrarian reform, one of the FARC’s major requirements for peace. The Colombian government has promised to redistribute land to displaced peasants, but insists that the rebels must cease hostilities before this can happen.
OAS Calls for Discussion to Legalize Marijuana: A drug policy report by the Organization of American States (OAS) released in Bogotá on Friday called for "greater flexibility" in dealing with illegal drugs in the hemisphere and said that decisions regarding the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana will need to be taken "sooner or later." The 400-page study emphasizes drug abuse as a public health issue and argues that criminal prosecution is inappropriate for dealing with drug addicts. Though the study considered the possibility of legalizing marijuana, it also noted that there was “no significant support” among member countries for legalizing cocaine.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Suggests he will seek a Second Term: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suggested on Friday that he will seek a second term as president in 2014, though he must wait until November to make the announcement official. “I would like many of our policies to continue beyond August 7, 2014,” Santos said, referring to the last day of his current term. Colombia's elections will be held on May 25, 2014, but presidential candidates cannot announce their candidacy until six months before that date.
Update, May 15, 2013: President Nicolás Maduro and Lorenzo Mendoza, president of Empresas Polar, met last night and resolved their differences, with both pledging to work together to overcome any food shortages.
May 14, 2013 - Lorenzo Mendoza, head of Empresas Polar S.A., Venezuela’s largest privately-held food company, refuted government claims that his business is sabotaging the local food market. Mendoza’s comments came in response to President Nicolás Maduro’s accusations over the weekend that Polar is attempting to exacerbate food shortages and destabilize the economy by cutting output of staples like corn flour—which is used to make arepas, or patties, a staple in the Venezuelan diet.
In a press conference held in the company’s headquarters in Caracas on Monday, Mendoza said restrictive state regulations were the real cause of Venezuela's food shortages and that his company was being treated as a scapegoat. While Polar controls 48 percent of the corn flour market, Mendoza explained that his company couldn’t be responsible for overall food shortages because it only accounts for 9 percent of total food consumption in the country.
The head of Polar said that the company increased its corn flour production and sales by 10 percent during the first four months of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012. He also announced that Polar is willing to buy or lease some of the state-owned production plants to increase local production of corn flour.
Venezuela’s scarcity index, which measures the amount of goods that are out of stock on the market, rose to 21.3 percent in April, its highest level since the central bank began tracking it in 2009. Inflation also jumped 4.3 percent last month, led by an increase in food prices. The combination of price controls, which analysts claim choke domestic output, together with government limits on accessing dollars further contributes to delays in acquiring raw materials. The government is trying to solve both problems. According to Finance Minister Nelson Merentes, accessing dollars will be resolved in the short-term, and the Venezuelan government plans to import 700 thousand tons of food from Mercosur countries to combat its food shortages. Brazil and Argentina are studying the possibility of emergency food sales to Venezuela.
Mendoza is scheduled to meet with President Maduro today. According to a statement on its company Facebook page, Polar said that it would attend all the meetings requested by the government and that it is willing “to cooperate with the search for solutions that favor the Venezuelan people.”
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro marked the end of his three-day trip through Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil yesterday with a meeting in Brasilia with President Dilma Rousseff to highlight Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Brazil.
Maduro traveled to Mercosur member countries for his first trip post-presidential election in an effort to consolidate bilateral ties. In Uruguay, his first stop, the Venezuelan president met with President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, and pledged a “permanent” supply of petroleum. He continued on to Argentina, where he signed 11 bilateral agreements with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and gave a public address at a soccer stadium where he invoked the legacies of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as well as deceased Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.
In Brazil, his final stop, Maduro received a firm endorsement from President Rousseff. The two leaders announced that Brazilian construction and engineering conglomerate Odebrecht will construct a 1.5-million-tonne-a-year urea plant in Venezuela. Venezuela is the second largest market, after Argentina, for Brazilian manufactured goods.
The international trip also carries domestic implications. Eduardo Viola, International Relations professor from Universidad de Brasilia said that “with this trip to Mercosur member countries whose leaders have demonstrated support, Maduro seeks to legitimize his situation, highly questionable in his country, not only because of the tight electoral results questioned by the opposition but also because of the grave economic and public safety conditions which are bleak.”
While an audit of Venezuelan election results began this week, nearly every nation in the region has accepted Maduro's presidency.
It’s not hard to imagine what was behind Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota’s announcement yesterday that Brazil will hire 6,000 Cuban doctors to work in rural parts of Brazil.
As the situation in Venezuela continues to teeter in uncertainty, the Brazilian government has thrown the Cuban government another lifeline. Doing so provides a cushion for a sinking Castro regime that has been kept afloat by the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil per day that Venezuela has sent to Cuba since 2005.
In return, the Cuban government has provided over 30,000 doctors, sports trainers, and advisors at terms very favorable to Cuba. (You think U.S. healthcare costs are high? Imagine the cost of Cuban doctors. Assuming 30,000 of them at $100 per barrel of oil, those guys are worth the equivalent of $333 per day!) The artificially-inflated cost of doctors aside, it’s the sports trainers and advisors that are the concern. I must confess, I have no idea what a Cuban sports trainer is (though I assume he would look something like this.) In reality, they likely provide a service very similar to the advisors: the political counseling, intelligence and military training, propaganda dissemination, and intelligence gathering that has been key to the chavista government’s ability to consolidate its power.
For those advisors, President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro’s unexpected poor showing in the election presents a zero-sum game. If they cannot shore up the anointed heir of former President Chávez, they may very well lose their lifeline. For that reason, many have speculated that the Cubans are working overtime to help President Maduro. (Though, quite frankly, Maduro’s recent vitriolic attacks on the opposition and the United States seem more like those of a wounded animal than an expression of the subtle, strategic advice one would expect from seasoned intelligence agents.)
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro embarked today on a three-day tour of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, all members of Mercosur (The Common Market of the South). Following Paraguay’s suspension from the free-trade group, Venezuela joined Mercosur last year and will assume the bloc’s temporary presidency for the first time on June 28 during a summit in Montevideo.
During a ceremony on Sunday to commemorate the two-month anniversary of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Maduro announced that he would visit the other Mercosur countries to “continue bringing forward a perfect equation of financial, energy, cultural and political integration.”
In Uruguay, Maduro will meet with Uruguayan President José Mujica, as well as former Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, union leaders and the electrical transformer company Urutransfor. Members of the Uruguayan opposition have criticized Maduro’s visit as “tactless and inconvenient” because of the current political tensions that exist in Venezuela. Later this week, Maduro will meet Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Buenos Aires and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in Brasilia to discuss the next steps for the regional bloc.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Colombian civil society holds forum on political participation; Venezuela’s election audit begins on May 6; the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a lower court’s immigration ruling; Honduran police officials resign in the midst of a police crisis; and Brazil’s Maracanã stadium reopens after three years.
Colombian Civil Society Weighs in on Peace Negotiations: Hundreds of civil society groups convened in Bogotá on Sunday for a week-long forum on political participation in Colombia to discuss ways of integrating former FARC guerrillas into Colombian politics. The forum, organized by the UN and Universidad Nacional de Colombia, is the second to take place at the behest of the Colombian government and FARC negotiators after a forum on agrarian reform in December. Participants will send their suggestions to the peace negotiators in Havana on May 20. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who has been highly critical of the peace negotiations, said that his political movement would not participate in the forum this week.
Venezuelan Vote Audit to Begin on May 6: Venezuela's Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE) announced that an audit of ballots from the April 14 presidential election will begin on May 6 and last until June 4, but said that it was “unfeasible” to conduct a full recount of the vote. Opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who lost the election by less than 2 percentage points to rival Nicolás Maduro, called the audit a "joke" and has alleged dozens of cases of voter fraud and voter coercion during the elections. He said on Sunday that he would use “all the available instances” to fight Maduro’s victory.
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Decision to Block Portions of Alabama Immigration Law: The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by the state of Alabama to enact portions of the state’s controversial immigration law that was blocked by a federal appeals court last year. The Supreme Court’s decision allows last year’s ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stand, meaning that Alabama cannot prosecute people who harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, but will still allow police to check people’s immigration papers if they are stopped by law enforcement. Justice Antonin Scalia was the only Supreme Court justice to dissent from the high court’s decision not to take the case.
Honduran Police Officials Resign: Following a strike of almost 2,000 police officers in Honduras this week, President Porfirio Lobo accepted the resignations of police officials Eduardo Villanueva and Mario Chinchilla, who led the country’s Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial (Office of Investigation and Evaluation of Police Officers—DIECP). DICEP, the investigative body in charge of purging the Honduran police force of corruption, has been crippled by a lack of funds and by unrest among underpaid officers making only about $150 a month. Honduras’ Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Interior (National Internal Security Council—CONASIN) will convene Monday to propose candidates to take over the posts of Villanueva and Chinchilla.
Maracanã Reopens: Rio de Janeiro's iconic Maracanã stadium reopened on Saturday after three years of renovations intended to prepare the stadium for Brazil’s upcoming international sporting events. Maracanã will host the 2014 World Cup final and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics. However, media attending Saturday’s exhibition match reported that several parts of the stadium are still incomplete, even though the project was delayed by four months. Maracanã is the fourth of twelve World Cup stadiums to open. The stadium will be officially inaugurated on June 2 in a match between Brazil and England.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Horacio Cartes will be Paraguay’s new president; Guatemala’s Constitutional Court will decide whether Efraín Ríos Montt’s genocide trial can continue; Argentines protested Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government; Guantánamo prisoners’ hunger strike grows; the Venezuelan election audit process will take a month.
Horacio Cartes Wins Presidential Election in Paraguay: Tobacco magnate and soccer club president Horacio Cartes will be the next president of Paraguay after voters elected him with 46 percent of the vote on Sunday. Cartes’ main rival, Efraín Alegre of the Radical Liberal Party, captured 37 percent of the vote. Cartes’ victory marks the return of Paraguay’s Colorado Party to power and the likely normalization of Paraguay’s status with its Mercosur and UNASUR neighbors. The Colorados ruled Paraguay for 61 years before the election of former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo in 2008.
Guatemala Awaits Fate of Rios Montt Trial: Guatemala’s Constitutional Court will determine whether or not the genocide trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt will go forward. On Friday, Judge Yasmin Barrios declared that a decision to annul the trial by Judge Carol Patricia Flores was illegal. Judge Flores ruled on Thursday that all testimony since November 2011 had been invalid, a decision protested by human rights groups and victims of Guatemala’s internal conflict. Read more about the trial in an AQ blog post by Nic Wirtz.
Argentines Protest Government: Thousands of Argentines gathered in the streets on Friday in countrywide protests against a proposed judicial reform bill that would allow voters to elect magistrates that appoint and remove judges. Argentine legislators will vote on the judicial reform bill on Wednesday. Protesters, many from the political opposition and critical of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, also expressed a general dissatisfaction with Argentina’s crime and high inflation.
Over Half of Guantánamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike: A U.S. military spokesperson said on Sunday that 84 prisoners being held at the Guantánamo Bay military prison are now on hunger strike, and that 17 are being force-fed through tubes. Some of the detainees have been striking since early February, protesting abuse and searches that the prisoners say are invasive. Many of the detainees have been in the prison for over a decade without any charges.
Audit of Venezuelan Elections will take a Month: Venezuela’s Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council—CNE) said it will take a month to carry out an audit of the April 14 presidential election results, and said that the results of the audit will not alter the election’s outcome. The CNE has said that president-elect Nicolás Maduro defeated rival candidate Henrique Capriles by 1.8 percentage points. Maduro was sworn in as president on Friday, but the U.S. government has not yet recognized him as Venezuela’s new president. Meanwhile, Maduro has begun to appoint his cabinet members.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the Venezuelan government announced in March that it would hold elections on April 14 to replace the deceased former President Hugo Chávez everything seemed to favor Chávez’s handpicked replacement, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Only six months earlier, Chávez – battling cancer at the time, though it was unknown to the voters – handily beat the same opposition candidate Hernique Capriles by 11 percent.
But despite the massive outpouring of public grief for Chávez, and the government’s near monopoly control over the media and public resources, Maduro managed to lose more than 1,000,000 votes between October’s contest and last Sunday’s. As a result, it was an unexpected squeaker of an election – 50.8 percent for Maduro and 49 percent for Capriles, with a mere 250,000 votes separating the two.
What had happened was that 14 years of economic and administrative mismanagement had finally caught up to Chávez’s political heir. Lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Maduro struggled during the campaign to evoke the image of the popular leader, even claiming that Chávez had appeared to him in the form of a little bird. But it wasn’t enough. With inflation close to 30 percent, food and electricity shortages throughout the country, and two recent devaluations that have lowered the value of the Venezuelan currency the bolivar by more than 30 percent, voters demonstrated that in the post-Chávez era they are going to be more issue-oriented.
In reality, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; when he was alive, President Chávez’s approval ratings always stood above popular assessments of his government’s performance in public opinion polls. But clearly, it caught the Chavista government by surprise, which thought that the warm and fuzzy memories of their founder would last longer than six weeks.
Los resultados electorales del pasado domingo en Venezuela no solo desafiaron todas las encuestas que apuntaban a una holgada victoria del oficialista Nicolás Maduro—heredero del fallecido Hugo Chávez—sobre el opositor Henrique Capriles, sino también atizaron la polarización en la nación con mayores reservas mundiales de crudo. Entre demandas de reconteo de votos, marchas fallidas, cacerolazos y cohetazos, todo parece indicar que mañana viernes, Maduro se posicionará como presidente para el período 2013-2019.
La pelea electoral puso a prueba a toda la región. Entre reconocer al gobierno del "hijo de Chávez"—todos los países a excepción de Estados Unidos y Paraguay lo hicieron—y llamar a un legítimo reconteo de votos, posición que matizó la Organización de Estados Americanos después de condenar duramente la violencia post-electoral que causó siete muertos, se convocó a una reunión en Unasur con carácter de urgencia. Los otros 10 países del bloque—Argentina, Brasil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay, Guyana, Surinam, y Perú—ya han sentado una posición al lado de la institucionalidad de Venezuela. La crisis política desatada por la supuesta falta de transparencia electoral preocupa al continente y Maduro aseguró que dejaba todo en manos del CNE (organismo electoral en su país), es poco probable que haya lugar para el reconteo de votos, que le dieron la victoria por solo 230.000 sufragios.
A saber: cuatro de los cinco rectores electorales son chavistas, y el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia ya sentó su posición al asegurar que la constitución y las leyes locales no prevén un conteo manual. Aunque esto es cierto, la auditoria ciudadana sí está reconocida pero sólo sobre el 54 por ciento de las urnas escogidas al azar. Esta vigilancia según Maduro ya se hizo, aunque en las denuncias el candidato opositor Henrique Capriles, muchos de sus testigos electorales fueron retirados a la fuerza en al menos 285 centros de votación.