Venezuela News Summary #70

Venezuela News Summary #70, (Jan. 19- Jan. 27, 2009)

I. Students March in Support of Amendment to Venezuela’s Constitution
Last week, thousands of university and high school students marched in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, and in the states of Barinas, Lara, Anzoategui, and Sucre in support of next month’s national referendum to eliminate term limits for elected officials. The students in Caracas marched from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, accompanied by the minister of Higher Education, Luis Acuña. Acuña referenced educational achievements under Chavez, and condemned recent violent acts by some members of the opposition.

II. Venezuelan Government Condemns Violent Demonstrations
Several violent confrontations occurred over the last week in disputes over the upcoming referendum. Some were aledgedly instigated by the opposition and others by pro-Chavez supporters. In Caracas, a week and a half ago, motorcyclists identifying themselves as members of the pro-Chávez organization La Piedrita threw tear gas canisters at the building of the apostolic delegates in Venezuela. The apostolic facility is considered to sympathize with the opposition and last year granted opposition student leader Nixon Moreno asylum after Moreno was charged with rape. Police detained six members of La Piedrita who tear gassed a meeting of the opposition party Bandera Roja on Tuesday, last week, and declared the party’s leaders “military targets.” The same day, in the Andean city of Mérida, masked opposition students burned tires and threw glass bottles to block a major avenue. They retreated into the university before any confrontations with police. In Táchira state, the following day chairs flew after a heated debate between pro-Chavez and opposition students in the state parliament. The same day in Caracas, police detained five opposition students after they vandalized city streets while marching to the Supreme Court without a permit. The students had requested a permit, but according to Tarek El-Aissami, Minister of Interior and Justice, it was denied because one had already been granted to another event in the same area.

The students’ stated their peaceful intention was to demand the nullification of the constitutional amendment referendum. However, Metropolitan Police Chief Carlos Meza said the vehicle carrying the sound equipment for the march also contained hundreds of Molotov cocktails and piles of rocks. The police also announced they had seized trucks carrying car tires, gasoline, and homemade bombs near the university the day before. All of this follows a previous week of violent political acts. First, arsonists wearing opposition t-shirts during a violent anti-amendment march set fire to 8 acres of a national park near Caracas. Then, unidentified motorcyclists exploded a molotov cocktail inside a truck that was parked on university grounds, belonging to the president of the Central University of Venezuela student government, Ricardo Sánchez, who is a prominent anti-Chávez activist. Leaders of the pro-Chavez United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, suspect that opposition groups are behind some of the violence that has been attributed to pro-government groups. University authorities have consistently denied opposition involved in violent activities, and accused the government of ordering attacks against the opposition. However early last week, pro-Chávez student activists found nearly 10,000 t-shirts advocating a ‘No’ vote against the amendment in the rector’s office of the publicly funded Liberator Experimental Pedagogical University in Caracas. Venezuelan government officials have issued sweeping denunciations of violent demonstrations both for and against the proposed constitutional amendment and ordered criminal investigations in to all recent cases.

Following the violent confrontations, the Venezuelan government responded last week by declaring that demonstrators who threaten public security should be promptly detained by local police. In recent years, armed anti-Chávez groups have repeatedly shut down city streets to oppose the Chávez government. They have commandeered and demolished public buses, fired guns, burned tires and thrown molotov cocktails at police officers. The police often contain but have rarely arrested the protesters. Last week, Chávez urged that such passivity by security forces must end. Nevertheless, the president stressed that peaceful marches are entirely permitted.

III. 100,000 Committees to Campaign for Amendment to Venezuela’s Constitution
All of this comes just days after 100,000 committees from across Venezuelan society promised to campaign to win the February 15th referendum. Nearly two weeks ago, over 20,000 people attended the swearing in of the committee leaders which will be coordinating the campaign in support of the referendum under the umbrella of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. According to Chavez, the committees are organized along various fronts including women, youth, workers, communal councils, and the PSUV. 10,000 transportation workers vowed to work hard to pass the referendum. The rally followed a large campaign caravan which stopped traffic all across Caracas. A test run for voting day is planned to take place on January 31. Chavez said the day will serve to evaluate the organizational capacity of the groups to get out the vote.

Meanwhile, the same day, the opposition party, Accion Democratica formalized its participation in the “No” block at the National Electoral Council. Party General secretary, Henry Ramos, criticized the amendment question as “deceptive”. Podemos- formerly part of the pro-Chavez sector, also signed on to the group campaigning against the referendum.

IV. Venezuela’s Chavez Praises Obama
Last Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías, applauded the decision by newly-inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama to close the Guantanamo prison camp and to prohibit torture, however Chavez affirmed that he would quote “wait calmly” to see the true direction of the Obama administration.

V. U.S.-Venezuela Relations Uncertain as Obama and Chávez Intensify Rhetoric
Chavez’s comments came on the heels of statements to the press over the US presidential inaugural weekend, in which then president-elect Barack Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez intensified their critiques of each other while reiterating their mutual desire to improve relations. In the wake of widely-circulated news about recent meetings between opposition leaders and U.S. State Department officials in Puerto Rico, Chávez expressed his skepticism of the incoming Obama administration, and demanded actions that shows that the U.S. will put a halt to its long history of interventions in the affairs of its southern neighbors. Chávez alleged that several of those who met in Puerto Rico have now met with U.S. officials in New York to plan strategies to defeat the upcoming referendum. In his statements, Obama expressed interest in increasing dialogue between the US and Venezuela, and also mentioned the possability of more flexible travel and remittance laws between the U.S. and Cuba, but denied an end to the U.S.-imposed embargo against the island. Obama then re-hashed previous remarks that quote, “Chávez has been a force that has impeded progress in the region.” and quote, “We must remain firm when we see the news that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities.” Chávez responded in kind last week, calling the United States, the world’s top exporter of terrorism. He harshly criticized Obama’s silence about the bloody invasion of Gaza by Israel, the U.S.’s principal ally in the Middle East. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4125

VI. Venezuela-Argentina Meeting Strengthens Regional Integration
After visiting Cuba last week, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner flew to Venezuela to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez where they discussed increasing bilateral cooperation between the two countries. The two governments signed more than 20 new cooperation agreements, largely in the industrial, energy and agricultural sectors. Among the package was also an agreement to cooperate on the prevention of drug trafficking, and various accords dealing with transportation, food, health, science, culture, communal economy, human resources, and sports. The agreements come amidst increasing exchange between the two nations. Commerce between Venezuela and Argentina grew by nearly 50% in 2007, reaching just over a billion dollars in 2008. This was Kirchner’s second visit to Venezuela. The leaders agreed to meet once every three months in order to review progress with these and other agreements.

VII. Venezuela’s and Colombia’s Presidents Agree On More Economic Cooperation
Hugo Chavez and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, held their 13th meeting over the weekend in Cartegana, Colombia. The presidents and a range of ministers covered various political, economic and social issues, but stressed countering the financial crisis. Chavez announced at a press conference following the meeting, that the two countries will create a bi-national economic commission, which will revise, strengthen, and create new means of exchange, and help consolidate their economic relationship. They also agreed to create a bi-national fund that would give micro-credits to small and medium industries in Colombia and Venezuela which export to each other. Both nations will contribute approximately $100 million, with the hopes that the fund will stimulate production, employment, and commercial exchange. They also discussed plans to study a possible pilot project for a common trading currency. Commerce figures between the two nations hit $7 billion in 2008. Chavez suggested aiming for $10 billion in the short term.
During their meetings, Chavez denied recurring accusations that Venezuela is trying to destabilize Colombia by supporting leftist guerillas. Referring to the upcoming referendum to eliminate term limits, Uribe said that Colombia respects the quote “democratic decisions of our Venezuelan bretheren.”

VIII. Venezuela Congratulates Ally Bolivia for Ratification of New Constitution
Lastly, still in international relations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez congratulated Bolivian President Evo Morales by telephone on Sunday for the ratification of the new Bolivian Constitution. The new Constitution passed by more than 60% approval in the first ever popular vote on a constitution in Bolivia. It strengthens Bolivian state sovereignty over natural resources and lays the framework for the re-distribution of unproductive large estates. The new constitution bears several similarities to Venezuela’s constitution, which was re-written after Chávez took office in 1999. The constitution guarantees expanded access to basic services such as health care and education. It expands state involvement in the economy, and places a roughly 12,000 acre cap on new land purchases. The document also promotes the native languages of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, creates permanent indigenous seats in parliament, and outlines new forms of autonomy for indigenous communities. The passage of the new Constitution could potentially weaken right-wing separatist movements in Bolivia’s resource-rich eastern provinces. Morales and Chávez plan to meet next at an upcoming summit of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, or ALBA.