Venezuela News Summary #74

Venezuela News Summary #74 (Feb. 17- Feb. 25, 2009)

I. Latest Referendum Results Give “Yes” Vote Greater Margin of Victory
With nearly all votes counted last week, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council released the latest results from the February 15th constitutional amendment referendum to eliminate term limits. According to the electoral council’s latest vote count, the “Yes” vote actually increased its victory to just under 55%. This a half a point higher than the first preliminary results that were released a few hours after polls closed, and roughly 90% of the votes had been counted. All told more than 6,300,000 Venezuelan citizens voted in favor of amending Venezuela’s constitution to eliminate the two-term limit on all elected offices. Nearly 5,200,000 voted against the proposal. This new count increases the margin of difference between the two sides by a full percentage point, to nearly ten %. Tibisay Lucena, president of the the National Electoral Council stated also that abstention was even lower than first announced, at just over 30% of registered voters, making this one of the most attended electoral events of the past ten years. Only the 2006 presidential election had a higher participation rate, with nearly 75% participation. Out of roughly 16 million registered voters, more than 11,700,000 participated in Sunday’s referendum. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4229

II. Venezuelan Government, Opposition, and U.S. React to Constitutional Amendment’s Approval
Anti-amendment leaders quickly conceded defeat on Feb. 15th, although they accused government institutions of inappropriately promoting the amendment. Meanwhile, government officials praised the high voter turnout and denounced the private media for distorting information in its campaign against the amendment. In contrast, opposition leader Leopoldo López said the amendment’s victory marked quote, “the materialization of violence against the constitution and the burial of the state of law. We need to have a project in which all Venezuelans fit. What we have now is profound division and conflict.” Prior to Sunday’s vote, Venezuela’s Supreme Court and National Electoral Council had reviewed and given the go-ahead to the national referendum, which the National Assembly proposed in line with constitutional procedures. Several Venezuelan government ministers praised the high voter turnout. Venezuela’s indigenous affairs minister, Nicia Maldonado, highlighted the strong support for the amendment in the states of Amazonas and Delta Amacuro, where large percentages of Venezuela’s indigenous population voted more than 70% in favor of the Constitutional change. Echoing President Chávez’s post-referendum speech, Maldonado said Venezuela should now embark on a period of the three Rs, Revision, Rectification, and Re-Launch. United States State Department Spokesperson Gordon Duguid said in a daily press briefing two days after the vote that quote, “It’s my understanding that the referendum took place in a fully democratic process.” Duguid said that it was a matter for the Venezuelan people. When asked about the results of the referendum, Duguid said quote, “The process was held consistent with democratic principles… in the United States, we have term limits, but that’s our practice.” http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4231

III. Both Sides of Amendment Campaign Claim Other Side Had Advantage
and on the heels of the referendum vote, both Chavez supporters and the opposition say that the other had the campaign advantage. Chavez supporters argue that the opposition dominance over the media gave it a extra hand during the amendment campaign. According to Jesse Chacon, who was in charge of communication for the Simon Bolivar campaign in support of the yes vote, the opposition had more than 70% of the coverage in the print and TV media. Chacon said the media has quote “become a political actor” and that it is quote, “very far from being an intermediary between reality and the citizen.” He also criticized the polls that had predicted a win for the “No” vote, saying there are quote, “few serious pollsters” in the country. Meanwhile, the opposition argues that the “Yes” side used government resources in its campaign. They are now proposing a law against such “abuse”. Former 2006 opposition presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, said the “Yes” victory was undeserved because it had used government resources in its campaign. He said, quote, “It is a victory that comes from the unscrupulous, improper, vulgar, and obscene use of state resources and state powers.” The opposition wants to propose a law that would regulate the use of government resources and power in future elections. Rosales said he would propose a meeting with the government to discuss such a law.

IV. French President Congratulates Chavez, Praises Venezuelan Democracy
French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent a letter to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last week, congratulating him on the victory of the constitutional referendum to eliminate term limits. Sarkozy wrote, The referendum was “characterized by strong participation that demonstrates, yet again, the vitality of democracy in Venezuela… I hope the results will allow you to continue the policies you have implemented in the last ten years, especially those improving social justice and reducing inequality in your country.” The French President also expressed his desire for strengthened dialogue and cooperation between the two countries, noting that ten agreements currently exist between the two nations. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4245

V. China, Venezuela Boost Economic Cooperation with US$ 12 Billion Fund
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping wrapped up his official visit to Venezuela last week, signing a dozen new agreements with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the areas of energy, telecommunications, information, and agriculture. Xi pledged another $8 billion towards a joint development fund for projects in the South American country, while Venezuela agreed to contribute an additional $4 billion. Chavez said the fund will be used for development in education, health, and infrastructure in Venezuela. The agreements are the newest sign of the increasingly close ties between Caracas and Beijing, which Chavez says adds up to nearly 300 signed documents and advanced projects. In the field of energy, agreements were signed allowing for preliminary steps towards new drilling projects in Venezuela’s Orinoco basin, the creation of a company to manufacture oil tankers, and multiple refineries on Chinese soil, including one that would process up to 400,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In honor of Xi’s visit, Chavez formally inaugurated Venezuela’s first cellular phone factory, the Venezuelan Telecommunications Corporation, which was constructed with Chinese support and technology in the northern state of Falcon. The factory will eventually produce roughly a million cell phones yearly, in addition to landline, cordless telephones and related parts. The leaders also signed new agricultural accords, including an irrigation project with the Guarico River in central Venezuela. Chavez announced that of the six billion originally deposited in the joint development fund, four billion had been spent on more than 40 projects, of which just over a dozen are agricultural. Over the last year, trade between the countries grew by more than 70 percent, surpassing $10 billion dollars. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4232

VI. Venezuelan President Visits Cuba to Discuss Global Economic Crisis
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez met with Cuban President Raúl Castro and former Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba last Friday and Saturday to discuss bi-national relations and the international economic crisis. Venezuela, an OPEC nation, has invested oil dollars in economic integration initiatives with Cuba and many other Central and South American countries. Chávez says these projects are meant to help Cuba manage the effects of the U.S. economic blockade, construct alternatives to international financial institutions, and promote development in agriculture, industry, health care, solar energy, oil refining and anti-poverty programs. During last week’s visit, Chávez was accompanied by Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez, Foreign Relations Minister Nicolás Maduro, chief of staff Luis Reyes, and the vice president of the state oil company PDVSA, Asdrúbal Chávez. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4243

VII. Government Takes Over Venezuelan Branch of Stanford Bank
The Venezuelan government took over the Venezuelan branch of the the Stanford Bank last week, after reports that Allen Stanford’s assets had been frozen causing panicked Venezuelans to withdraw their savings from the international bank. The Venezuelan move came after a US civil court froze the assets of Allen Stanford, the Stanford Group, and subsidiaries Stanford International Bank and Stanford Capital Management. Last Tuesday, the Texan Allen Stanford was accused of $8 billion in fraud and of luring investors with promises of improbably high returns. For days he couldn’t be found or contacted, but has been located by the FBI. Stanford is chairman of the Stanford Financial Group, a company founded by his grandfather. The Group is a network of affiliated financial service companies, mostly in the US, Caribbean, and Latin America. Stanford Bank Venezuela’s assets are separate to the Stanford International Bank but there has been a wave of panic withdrawals. In just 48 hours, clients withdraw 57 million bolivars or roughly $ 26 million dollars. The Venezuelan National Superintendent of Banks and Other Financial Institutions quickly made the decision to put the bank under government control, and then put it up for immediate sale. Venezuelan finance minister, Ali Rodriguez, highlighted that the government takeover of the Stanford subsidiary in Venezuela was quote “absolutely separate to the Venezuelan financial system.” Rodriguez said that until the withdrawals, the Stanford bank had been stable. The ex-finance minister and current director of the Social Investigation Group, Nelson Merentes, said the measures taken by the government were efficient and will protect the people with savings in Stanford. The Stanford Bank represents roughly 1% of the banking system in Venezuela. It only has 15 branches in the country. Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru have also suspended Stanford Bank activities. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4236

VIII. Director of Public Venezuelan TV Station Rejects Accusations of Irregularities
William Castillo, the president of the public broadcasting station TVES, denied harsh allegations made last week by former TVES Director Esteban Trapiello, who said the management had deviated from its purpose of being an outlet for Venezuela’s independent and low-budget producers. Castillo invited Trapiello to present evidence that supports his accusations, and said TVES’s directors had already solicited an audit by both a private auditor and Venezuela’s top anti-corruption watchdog agency before Trapiello made his accusations. In nationally televised statements last week, Trapiello accused the TVES management of purchasing over-priced programs, including soap operas and NBA basketball games, from firms in Mexico. This according to Trapiello, violated TVES’s charter, which establishes a quota for nationally and independently produced programs that are educational and socially responsible. Trapiello said the station is in “ridiculous” condition, and that mismanagement is to blame for TVES’s low ratings, poor signal, lack of viewers, and absence from the internet. According to a Castillo, a national investigation of TVES is planned for this year. TVES, an independently managed state foundation, was granted a public broadcasting concession in May 2007. TVES replaced the private RCTV station, whose twenty-year concession expired and was not renewed because of its support of the 2002 coup against President Hugo Chavez and repeated violations against the Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4242

IX. Murder of Small Farmer Rights Organizer Sparks Protests in Yaracuy, Venezuela
Campesino rights groups marched in the city of San Felipe in Venezuela’s Yaracuy state last Saturday to demand justice for the assassination of Nelson López, a campesino rights organizer. López was shot fifteen times in the back on Thursday, February 19th. He is one of more than 200 small farmers to be murdered since 2001, the year the Chavez government passed a sweeping land reform law which allowed for the re-distribution of idle land to small farmers. According to Braulio Álvarez, a National Assembly representative and campesino organizer from Yaracuy state, the heads of the National Cattle Ranchers Association, the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers, and two powerful landowners were responsible for planning López’s murder. The Cattle Rancher Associations have not issued a response to the accusations. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4235