Venezuela News Summary #64

Venezuela News Summary #64 (Dec. 2-8, 2008)

I. Colombian Consul Removed from Venezuela for Supporting the Opposition
Last Monday, Colombia agreed to withdraw its consul from the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, after a conversation was aired on Venezuelan state TV showing Consul Carlos Fajardo to be supportive of the Venezuelan opposition.

In the recorded conversation which is said to have taken place the day after this year’s Nov. 23rd local and regional elections, Carlos Fajardo spoke with José Obdulio Gaviria- cousin to the diceased narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria, and current adviser to Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Speaking of the election results from the previous day, Fajardo said quote, “it’s turned out very well…the two people are very good friends and I think that for our work here, it should be fantastic… the results numerically were very favorable, strategically favorable to the opposition.” Fajardo added that Pablo Perez, the new opposition governor of Zulia state is quote “a very special friend of ours.” “We have potential,” he said, “I already spoke to them this morning and we’re going to meet to look at taking some action at the level of government… I need your go ahead, because when you tell me ‘start’, I’ll get going.” Alberto Nolia is the program host which aired the conversation. He said Fajardo’s objective was to infiltrate the state with thugs and paramilitaries. Nolia later presented an email which mentioned a possible meeting in the Venezuela’s border state of Tachira, between recently elected Venezuelan opposition leaders and Colombian elected officials with supposed ties to the paramilitary. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he believes the opposition was making plans to create a “half moon” out of the border states. The half moon is a reference to opposition-controlled states in Bolivia who have attempted to separate from the country. Fajardo responded to the accusations, saying his right to privacy had been violated. According to El Universal the conversation was quote, “presumably recorded by the Venezuelan intelligence services.” Officially, Fajardo was accused of immersing himself in the internal affairs of the country. International law sates that agreements between governments must be made through the foreign ministers of the respective countries.

II. Suspect Arrested in the Assassination of Three Venezuelan Labor Leaders
Last week, Venezuela’s Ministry of Interior and Justice announced that it had apprehended a key suspect in the assassination of three labor unionists which took place in late November. The announcement came on the heels of days of demonstrations in which a dozen and a half Venezuelan labor unions paralyzed major highways in Aragua state to demand the investigation into the murder. According to Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami, the 31-year-old Julio César Arguinzones Romero, is suspected of killing the three unionists as part of a “hired homicide”. The Minister added that “the investigation is well underway,” and that several other suspects may be arrested soon. The apprehension came one day after President Hugo Chavez ordered a full scale investigation of the murders, declaring quote, “In Venezuela we cannot permit the installation of this perversion, these hired assassinations.” At the time of their murder, the three union leaders, Richard Gallardo, Carlos Requena, and Luis Hernández were involved in a workers’ strike against the Colombian-owned milk processing company ALPINA. The workers were stricking to protest the company’s alleged violations of a collective labor contract. During the protests, the local police forces had violently repressed the workers. National UNT leader Stalin Perez Borges has called on the government to investigate the involvement of both ALPINA and the Aragua police in the hired killings of the three prominent union leaders.

III. Another Venezuelan Labor Leader is Assassinated in Aragua
Meanwhile, yet another trade union leader, Simon Caldera, was assassinated last Tuesday in Venezuela’s Aragua state. This is the fourth assassination of a union leader in Aragua in less than a week, and occurred amidst protests from labor unions regarding the assassinations. Caldera was the president of the pro-Chavez Bolivarian Construction and Industry Union. The shots were fired from a moving vehicle while Caldera and two other trade unionists drove on a national highway. Caldera was shot in the head and the two others were injured in the attack. The gunmen fled the scene without robbing the victims. The government has yet to issue a statement on the latest killing.

IV. Corruption Investigation Continues Against Former Venezuelan Governor Rosales
Last Tuesday, Mario Isea, President of the National Assembly special commission to investigate corruption charges against former Zulia State Governor Manuel Rosales, presented a new round of evidence to Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. According to Isea, Rosales is guilty of corruption on several counts, including the channeling of public funds into private accounts, hoarding land and capital in the name of front persons, and complicity with fraud when he allegedly re-contracted with a local lottery even after this lottery was proven to have committed fraud. When Rosales appeared in a National Assembly hearing a week and a half ago, Isea asked rhetorically how public officials could have acquired so much wealth, and presented a long list of properties owned by Rosales and his staff, both in the US and in Zulia state. Isea also played recordings of phone conversations in which Rosales allegedly distributed public funds to his allies. Rosales said he has nothing to do with the property accumulated of his colleagues, and accused Isea of violating the constitution by playing the recordings. Rosales, who lost the presidential election to Hugo Chavez in 2006, was elected mayor of Zulia state capital, Maracaibo, in the regional and local elections on November 23rd. The national investigation into corruption charges against Rosales began in late October. Rosales is due to appear before federal prosecutors on December 11th.

V. Cemex takes Venezuela to World Bank Arbitration over Nationalization
Cemex, a cement and building materials corporation, whose Venezuelan subsidiaries were nationalized in August, filed a petition for arbitration in the World Bank against Venezuela for the expropriation of its assets. The century-old Mexican company is the third largest supplier of cement in the world, and the largest building materials supplier. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, announced the nationalization of the cement industry in April, claiming that the industry produced too much material for export instead of selling it domestically at reasonable prices. The nationalization was further sparked amidst a massive nationwide housing shortage. Cemex has demanded $1.3 billion in compensation for the nationalization, while the Venezuelan government has offered half that amount. Two other cement companies, Holcim and Lafarge have already reached an agreement of compensation for the nationalization of their companies with Venezuela.

VI. Gallup Poll: Venezuelans More Satisfied Than Other Latin Americans
Venezuelans are among the Latin Americans most satisfied with their lives. Their satisfaction with their public education, health care, work situation, and housing also rank well above average for the region. The findings are based on data from the Gallup World Poll, which continually surveys people in 140 countries. With ten being the most satisfied with life and zero the lowest rating possible, Venezuelans’ happiness averaged 6.5, the fourth highest score of a Latin American country. Compared to average scores around the globe, Venezuelans ranked just below the industrialized nations of North America and Western Europe, but higher than all other regions. Nearly 85 percent of Venezuelans reported being satisfied with their public education system. Over 90 percent were satisfied with their work situation. Over 85 percent felt satisfied with their housing situation, and over 70 percent said they were satisfied with the availability of health care in their area. For many, the general positive responses are believed to be a direct result of increased attention to these areas under the Chavez administration. Between 1998 and 2006, Venezuelan education spending tripled and health care spending doubled.

VII. Venezuelan Parliament to Approve Referendum on Presidential Term Limit
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez declared on Friday night that a national referendum to amend the Venezuelan constitution to abolish presidential term limits should take place no later than February, 2009. “Don’t take off your campaign boots,” Chávez said,”if we are going to do this, let’s do it now.”
Friday night, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, decided that it will introduce the referendum through the National Assembly, as opposed to gathering petition signatures from 15% of registered voters. Both methods of proposing a constitutional amendment are valid under Article 341 of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. The constitution requires that one third of the National Assembly sign on to a preliminary amendment proposal, and then a simple majority of the assembly must vote to bring it to a national referendum. Chávez supporters have held the vast majority of congressional seats since opposition parties boycotted the legislative elections in 2005, so the referendum appears to have few obstacles. After the referendum is approved, the National Electoral Council will have thirty days to organize the national vote, in which the amendment must receive a simple majority to be approved. Electoral Council Vice President Yaneth Hernández confirmed this week that organizing a national referendum by February is logistically viable. Currently, Venezuelan presidential terms are six years long with a possible one-time reelection. The proposed amendment would maintain the six year presidential term, but remove the two-term limit. Chavez’s current term in office expires early in 2013. Opposition leaders and newspapers have harshly criticize the initiative, and opposition student leader, Yon Goicoechea, has called for full scale student opposition to the amendment this week. The vast majority of Chávez’s supporters applaud the amendment, although a few critical voices within the Bolivarian movement have expressed concerns.