Venezuela News Summary #71

Venezuela News Summary #71 (January 28th- February 6, 2009)

I. Venezuelan Government Displays Decade of Achievements on Anniversary of Chávez Presidency
This Monday, Venezuelans celebrated the tenth anniversary of the inauguration of President Hugo Chávez to his first presidential term. Many Venezuelans consider this day to mark the beginning of what they call the “Bolivarian Revolution,” which has brought a new progressive constitution, sustained economic growth, and unprecedented expansion of health care and other social services. According to the Education Ministry, over the last 10 years, enrollment in pre-schools has increased from 40% to 60%, and grown in elementary schools to well over 90%. High school graduation rates have risen by 20%, and university enrollment has grown by 300% to nearly 2 million students. Through the educational program, Mission Robinson, more than a million Venezuelans were taught to read, bringing the illiteracy rate down to less than one percent. In health care, infant mortality has dropped by nearly half, and the government’s unprecedented expansion of free clinics in local communities has made primary care accessible to nearly all Venezuelans. Both poverty and extreme poverty have dropped by more than half. The Venezuelan economy has grown consistently for twenty consecutive trimesters. Unemployment hit a new low of 6% last month, less than half of its peak of 14% following the oil strike in 2003. Overall, annual inflation has averaged just over 20% during the Chávez presidency, compared to nearly 60% during the presidency of Rafael Caldera during the mid-1990s. The government-subsidized Mercal food markets sell food at regulated prices to nearly 70% of the poorest sectors of the population and nearly half of the middle and upper classes. President Chávez announced a national holiday to commemorate the anniversary. Thousands rallied and celebrated around the country. Shops, schools, and banks were closed. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4163

II. ALBA Trade Bloc Forms Joint Food Company at Summit in Venezuela
Representatives from Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Honduras, and Dominica were in Venezuela for the celebrations. They held an extraordinary summit of the regional trade bloc, ALBA in Caracas on Monday. During the meeting they created a joint food production company and laid out plans to guarantee food security in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. The new ALBA company will receive an initial investment of nearly $50 million, taken out of the $100 million food security fund created by the ALBA member nations during the height of the world food crisis last April. Member nations also decided to place the food security fund under the management of the ALBA Bank, which is now headed up by Venezuela’s former ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Álvarez. Over the long term, ALBA nations committed to further integrate ALBA with PETROCARIBE, a group of seventeen Caribbean and Central American countries that receive preferential financing on Venezuelan oil and fertilizer in exchange for goods and services.

III. Chávez Speaks to Social Movements About New Revolutionary Path at World Social Forum
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez participated in this year’s World Social Forum in Belem do Pará, Brazil last week. Speaking to thousands, he said that Latin America’s social movements have been in the quote, “trenches of resistance” against global capitalism, and now they need to move to an “offensive,” taking concrete steps toward the creation of alternatives. The Venezuelan president was joined by several regional allies, and he emphasized that the drive toward social justice has taken on a new character since leaders with leftist policies have been democratically elected over the past decade. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4159

IV. Presumed Colombian Paramilitary Forces Detained in Venezuelan Capital
Venezuela’s vice president, Ramon Carrizalez, announced last week that
31 Colombians, presumed to be paramilitary forces, had been detained in the Caracas suburb of Petare. Carrizalez said they were investigating the motives of their presence. The detention comes less than two weeks after six other presumed paramilitaries were detained in the nearby city of Maracay, along with weapons, grenades and, two kilograms of explosives. In May 2004 the Venezuelan government announced the detention of a group of 130 Colombian paramilitaries, most of them on a large estate near Caracas owned by opposition leader Roberto Alonso. According to President Hugo Chavez the detainees were training to lead a military uprising and assassinate him. In 2007 the last of these detainees were pardoned by Chavez and sent to Colombia as a gesture of good faith.

V. Chávez to CNN: Hopefully U.S.-Venezuela Relations Will Be As With Clinton
In an exclusive interview with CNN on Monday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said that his government will maintain its extensive social programs no matter how low oil prices drop. Chávez added that his government currently has no plans to increase taxes or devalue the bolivar currency. Chávez said the alternative energies are “phenomenal” and that he hopes Venezuela and the U.S. can collaborate on the development of wind, solar, and marine current energy. US-Venezuelan relations have been on hold ever since both countries withdrew their respective ambassadors last September. Chavez re-iterated his hope that relations with the U.S. will be restored- at least to levels under former President Bill Clinton. Chávez said quote, “I have faith that this is possible, but it will depend on the attitude of the US president and his secretary of state.”

VI. Venezuela Launches 732 New Public Health Works For 2009
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced in late January that the Venezuelan government anticipates inaugurating more than 700 health projects this year as part of the Barrio Adentro III hospital upgrading program. Construction on the first 30 began last week. A hundred Barrio Adentro I centers also began functioning last Friday, pushing the total number of such centers up to more than 3100. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4150

VII. Various Polls Indicate Venezuelans Support Constitutional Amendment
Venezuelans are preparing for the Feb. 15th national vote on whether or not to amend the constitution to remove the two-term limit on all elected offices. Meanwhile, last week, several new polls were released indicating that a majority of Venezuelans support the proposed amendment. According to the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis, 54% of Venezuelans are in favor. A survey of 2500 Venezuelans conducted in mid-January by the Social Investigations Group, found that 55% of Venezuelans support the amendment, while 40% oppose it. Meanwhile, Datanálisis reported to Reuters that in mid January 51% of Venezuelans are in favor. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4152

VIII. Venezuelan Students and Security Forces Clash Violently as Referendum Debate Intensifies
Meanwhile, following a week of relative calms, violent student protests erupted again last week in at least six major Venezuelan cities, intensifying the political debate over the upcoming vote. During student protests against the amendment in Cagua, Aragua state, police detained 12 demonstrators who were armed with Molotov cocktails and cement rocks. The rest of the demonstrators took refuge in buildings on their university campus. The newly elected Aragua Governor Rafael Isea, of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, affirmed the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully against the amendment, but asserted quote, “We will not permit them to sow violence in our state.” These words echoed those of President Hugo Chávez in late January, when he ordered police and National Guard troops to defend peaceful demonstrations but to promptly disperse violent ones.

IX. Opposition Denounces Use of State Funds to Promote United Socialist Party of Venezuela
On Tuesday, opposition political parties in Venezuela accused the Chavez government of violating the Venezuelan Constitution by using public funds to finance PSUV primary elections in the run-up to the regional elections that took place last November. Oscar Pérez from the National Resistance Command, demanded that Venezuela’s top anti-corruption watchdog, Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián, open formal investigations into whether government offices and individuals used public funds to support the PSUV. The conservative party COPEI, along with former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales’s party Un Nuevo Tiempo and Alianza Bravo Pueblo echoed these calls for transparency in PSUV’s accounting. The opposition parties also filed complaints with the National Electoral Council that the state television channel broadcasted biased coverage in favor of the PSUV, in violation of laws on media objectivity during election periods. On Wednesday, Chávez’s minister of communications and information, Jesse Chacón, denounced privately owned news outlets for biased coverage in favor of the opposition to the Feb. 15th constitutional amendment. Chacón said eight of every ten news articles in leading private newspapers are biased against the amendment. The minister then encouraged PSUV activists to campaign in favor of the referendum. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4171

X. Unionists’ Murder Followed by Marches and Arrests in Anzoategui, Venezuela
On Thursday, January 29, two workers were killed during a confrontation with police over their occupation of a Mitsubishi plant in Barcelona, Anzoategui state. The police used violence and tear gas to try to remove the occupying workers, who were demanding that the company fulfill its obligations under their collective bargaining agreement. Following the murder, marches and meetings have involved the local community in the union struggle. This Tuesday, 2000 people marched in front of the Mitsubishi plant, past the courts, the state government, and through the main business district. The marchers condemned the death of the workers, and demanded the arrest of two judges who had ordered the removal of the workers from the plant, and the resignation of the secretary of the state government and the regional police commander. Anzoategui state governor, Tarek Saab, said six police have been arrested over their involvement in the confrontation, specifically for murder and the unnecessary use of firearms. Saab also suspended the two judges, and on Monday they were called to make declarations before the Venezuelan Supreme Court. The Venezuelan national assembly will also investigate the worker’s deaths. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4172

XI. Chávez Condemns Attack on Venezuelan Synagogue
Venezuela’s President Chávez, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, and Communications Minister Jesse Chacon all expressed their categorical condemnation of the vandalism of one of Venezuela’s main synagogues last week. Early Saturday morning, just over a dozen heavily-armed individuals subdued two synagogue security guards, removed security video recordings, and disabled security cameras. They then spent over four hours in the area, spray painting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans throughout the interior and threw sacred objects, such as the torah, to the ground. The event was immediately decried both internationally and in Venezuela by all sides. Communication minister, Jesse Chacón announced that an investigation is being carried out to find out who is responsible, but rejected the implication broadcast by some of Venezuela’s private media that attribute the action to Chávez supporters. Chavez condemned the violence and linked the attack to the upcoming referendum on amending Venezuela’s constitution to eliminate term limits. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4160

XII. Venezuela and U.S. Clash in OAS Over Synagogue Attack
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan and US representative in the Organization of American States, shared concerns about last Saturday’s attack on the prominent Caracas synagogue. They accused each other’s governments of playing a role in the incident. U.S. envoy Lewis Amselem echoed a throng of recent accusations that Venezuela is anti-Semitic and non-democratic. Meanwhile Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro met with representatives of the Venezuelan Jewish community to offer condolences and to guarantee a successful investigation. Maduro expressed little doubt that the attack was an electoral tactic of government adversaries who met with the U.S. government in Puerto Rico last month for purposes that are still unknown.

XIII. Chávez Welcomes Expulsion of Venezuelan Diplomats from Israel
The attack came just a few days after Venezuela’s representative to Israel Roland Betancourt was expelled from the middle-eastern country. A week and a half ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called Betancourt’s expulsion an “honor,” In protest of the the Israeli occupation and invasion of the Gaza strip, Chávez expelled the Israeli ambassador from Caracas and formally broke off relations with Israel in early January. Venezuela-Israel relations have been strained for many years. Israel has opposed Venezuela’s growing economic and political relationship with its enemy Iran. President Chávez says the partnership is part of his plan to construct a “mulit-polar world” that is not dominated by the United States and Europe. Israel and Jewish organizations in the U.S. have accused both Iran and Venezuela of supporting radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah in Latin America and the Middle East—an accusation that Venezuela’s foreign minister has vehemently denied.