Monday, December 30, 2013
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition politician Ricardo Hernandez was elected mayor of Tariba, a small Venezuelan city near the border with Colombia, by a landslide.
But he didn't have long to bask in his victory.
In the days after December 8 municipal elections in which the opposition won 75 mayoralties, Hernandez discovered that the company that collects trash had stopped working - apparently on orders of his predecessor, a member of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV).
And, the new mayor says, the state government of Tachira, which is controlled by the PSUV, ordered the police in Tariba to hand over its firearms and vehicles to a state force.
Hernandez' case is far from unique.
Across the OPEC nation, new office holders in the 49 mayoralties that passed to the opposition from the PSUV complain about what they say are efforts by President Nicolas Maduro's central government to strip their powers.
The moves have included taking away responsibilities - including the management of parks, theaters and other cultural centers - and removing assets from local authorities.
In some cases, they have prompted critics to accuse ruling party officials of trying to undermine and bypass opposition mayors and governors by setting up "parallel governments."
Hernandez, who won with 62 percent of the votes in Tariba, sees it as punishment for having defeated a PSUV candidate.
"It affects the population and the communities which are using those services," the 37-year-old lawyer said this week during a rare meeting between Maduro and opposition politicians, appealing for an end to interference in his work.
But Jose Vielma, the governor of Tachira state and a PSUV stalwart, denied there was any ill intent.
He said the temporary return of some equipment used by Tariba's police, which had been provided by its owners, the state police force, was arranged with Hernandez's predecessor.
"The weapons, bulletproof vests, patrol vehicles and motorcycles were returned by the (previous) mayor ... so that we can do maintenance and check them," Vielma told local media.
The central government denies it is setting up "parallel" administrations, and says it only steps in when local governments are not addressing urgent needs.
Maduro, 51, narrowly won the election in April to succeed his mentor, Hugo Chavez, who died from cancer the month before. At the municipal polls this month, the PSUV won 242 - or 76 percent - of the country's 337 mayoralties.
Overall, the PSUV and its allies took 10 percentage points more votes than opposition parties, showing the strength of "Chavismo" in rural areas where more mayoral races were up for grabs.
Still, the opposition won 75 mayoralties, which was a big increase on the 51 they held before and included wins in the largest cities, including the capital Caracas and second city Maracaibo.
After the polls, Maduro called opposition mayors and governors to meet him. But many remained skeptical, noting that Chavez had often seemed to offer an olive branch to rivals, then quickly reverting to his usual combative style.
"With this behavior, the government is showing it feels wounded by losing lots of mayoralties," the opposition coalition said in a statement, referring to Maduro's apparent outreach.
ONE CITY, TWO MAYORS?
Five years ago, during Chavez's rule, his candidate lost the mayoralty of metropolitan Caracas to a veteran opposition leader, Antonio Ledezma.
Just months later, Chavez created the new job of head of the government of the Capital District - essentially circumventing the mayor and assuming many of his duties - and he appointed a close ally, Jacqueline Farias, to the position.
Farias took over the office Ledezma had been using, and many of his responsibilities. Schools, firefighters, civil protection and other key functions were all then handled by her.
Just days after Ledezma was re-elected as mayor this month - beating PSUV candidate and former information minister Ernesto Villegas - Maduro's government named Villegas in a different role: Minister for the Transformation of Caracas.
"Give the mayor back his responsibilities and his funding," Ledezma appealed during the meeting with Maduro this week. "This is nothing to do with kindness, it's a question of justice."
The government denies anyone has been usurped. Maduro says Chavez set up state-run organizations in the past that benefited people and were never intended to be "parallel governments" that interfered with the work of elected officials.
Jorge Rodriguez, PSUV mayor of Libertador, one of the five municipalities that comprise the metropolitan district of Caracas, said Ledezma should examine his own performance before criticizing the president.
"If Ledezma focused his time in office on exercising his responsibilities, instead of traveling abroad and bad-mouthing the government, the results in Caracas would not depend solely on the central government," Rodriguez said.
Opposition members say one clear case of what they call a "parallel government" is in Miranda state, which includes large parts of Caracas and where the opposition coalition's two-time presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, is governor.
Shortly after Capriles was re-elected to that office last year, the central government awarded the PSUV candidate he defeated, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, a grandiose new title, "The Protector of Miranda."
Jaua was also put in charge of CorpoMiranda, a new state-run organization that runs development projects in the state.
Jaua says the founding of CorpoMiranda was needed, alleging that Capriles is "absent" and neglects his duties as governor by prioritizing his work as national opposition leader.
There is a similar situation in the remote southern state of Amazonas, bordering Brazil, where opposition politician Liborio Guarulla has been governor for 12 years.
First, Guarulla says, his responsibility for operating the local airport was taken away. Next, the state police was removed from his control, and then a radio station and an hotel.
The central government also created a new development body, CorpoAmazonas, and named his defeated election rival to run it.
"It's a miserable battle," Guarulla told Reuters in Amazonas. "They can't stop us (the opposition) from building, so now they are expropriating us, they're robbing us."
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday he had proof that a massive power outage was caused by saboteurs aiming to throw the country into chaos before municipal elections this weekend.
The blackout on Monday night was the second major power outage the year, plunging much of the country into darkness and prompting accusations of government incompetence from the opposition.
Speaking on state TV alongside Electricity Minister Jesse Chacon and other officials, Maduro briefly showed a photo of what appeared to be a cut conductor cable lying on the floor.
"What motive could there be for leaving a whole country without electricity?" he said, adding that Chacon had brought him the evidence and more details would be unveiled on Wednesday.
"We always face these attacks by the right-wing fascists ... they wanted to make me, as president of the republic, decree a state of emergency and suspend the elections."
Critics of the government say lack of maintenance was likely to blame for the outage.
Maduro said power had been restored in record time and praised the workers involved.
"Whoever made this criminal attack wanted to leave our Venezuela without electricity for 24 to 48 hours ... thinking that would convince people not to continue with the revolution."
Maduro's combative rhetoric echoed his allegations in September, when he also accused the opposition of sabotaging the national grid to discredit him after a blackout that was one of the worst in the OPEC nation's history.
Venezuela has experienced periodic power cuts since 2009, although the capital, Caracas, had been spared the worst of the outages, but it was hit by Monday night's blackout, which cut electricity across about half the country.
Nationwide municipal elections on Sunday are seen as a test of Maduro's political strength after he narrowly won the presidency in April to replace his late mentor, Hugo Chavez.
Since coming to power, Maduro has accused the opposition of plotting to assassinate him, and more recently of trying to undermine his government and wreck the economy through price-gouging and the hoarding of consumer goods.
Critics say the electricity problems symbolize the failure of 15 years of socialist rule in Venezuela, a country of 29 million people with the biggest oil reserves in the world.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's second massive power outage of the year plunged much of the nation into darkness on Monday night, prompting renewed talk of sabotage from President Nicolas Maduro's government and cries of incompetence from its foes.
Power went off in Caracas and other cities around the country soon after 8 p.m. local time (0030 GMT), to the intense annoyance of residents and commuters.
"I feel so frustrated, angry and impotent," said sales adviser Aneudys Acosta, 29, trudging through the rain along a street in the capital after having to leave the disrupted underground transport system.
"I live far away and here I am stuck under the rain. Something's going wrong that they're not sorting out. The government needs a Plan B. This is just not normal."
Monday's outage appeared similar to a massive September 5 blackout that was one of the worst in the South American OPEC member's history.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won a presidential election this year after the death of his mentor and former leader Hugo Chavez, accused the opposition then of deliberately sabotaging the power grid to discredit him.
His powerful ally and National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, repeated the same accusation after Monday's blackout that affected more than half of Venezuela.
"I have no doubt that today's electricity sabotage is part of the right-wing's plan," Cabello said on Twitter.
In some wealthier parts of Caracas, where opposition to the socialist government is strongest, people began banging pots and pans out of their windows in a traditional form of protest.
Some shouted, "Maduro, resign!"
Venezuela has been suffering periodic electricity cuts around the country since 2009, although the capital has been spared the worst outages.
Critics say the power problems symbolize the failure of the government and its 15 years of socialist policies in resource-rich Venezuela. The country has the world's largest crude oil reserves and big rivers that feed hydroelectric facilities generating two-thirds of its power.
The blackouts, some due to planned power rationing and at other times to utility failures, have not affected the oil refineries, which are powered by separate generator plants.
State oil company PDVSA said its installations were all working normally on Monday night, with fuel supplies guaranteed.
Electricity Minister Jesse Chacon said the same major transmission line that went down in September - and carries about 60 percent of national supply - had again been affected.
Power began returning to most parts of Caracas within an hour or two, though remoter parts of the nation of 29 million people were still in the dark late into the evening.
"We ask Venezuelans for patience," Chacon said.
PRESIDENT CUT OFF LIVE ON TV
Maduro was giving a live address on state TV when he was abruptly cut off. He later Tweeted that he was continuing to work in the presidential palace despite the "strange" blackout, and appeared live on state TV surrounded by school children.
"Be strong against this electrical war that yesterday's fascists have declared against our people," Maduro said in another address to the nation at about 11 p.m. local time.
Security services were on alert, while the oil industry had been "put on emergency", the president said.
Since winning office in April, Maduro has accused political opponents of conniving with wealthy businessmen and their allies in the United States to undermine his government.
As well as accusing them of sabotaging the power grid, he has alleged plots to assassinate him and to destroy the economy through price-gouging and the hoarding of products.
Venezuelans are suffering from a 54 percent annual inflation rate, as well as scarcities of basic products from flour to toilet paper. Nationwide local municipal elections on Sunday are seen as a major test of Maduro's standing.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said government officials' bellicose statements were "pathetic" at a time of national disquiet. "For once in your lives, be responsible," he Tweeted.
Capriles and others say the reasons for the power failures are obvious and simple: lack of investment, incompetence and corruption within the state-run power company Corpoelec since Chavez's 2007 nationalization of the sector.
Venezuela has a maximum generation capacity of about 28,000 megawatts and normal demand of about 18,000.
The government constantly chides Venezuelans, however, for wasteful habits in a nation where the average household consumes an average of 5,878 kilowatt hours per year, about double the average in Latin America.