Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Subverting the Electorate

from Bloomberg
Venezuela’s high court temporarily prevented three incoming opposition lawmakers from taking office and accepted challenges involving additional opposition deputies. The opposition said the moves are an attempt to undermine its recently won two-thirds legislative majority.

The court’s electoral branch said it’s authorized to review electoral challenges that could overturn the results in eight races, according to decisions posted on its website. By winning 112 of the National Assembly’s 167 seats in the Dec. 6 national ballot, the opposition’s so-called supermajority would allow it to change the constitution, impeach ministers and even push for a referendum on removing the president.

After President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist PSUV party lost control of the legislature for the first time since 1999, the Venezuelan leader vowed that Congress would continue to pass laws before its term ends. That has heightened tensions with opposition leaders who want to roll back measures they say have stoked inflation, fueled corruption, and led to shortages of basic consumer goods.

The government’s electoral challenges seek to “reject the voice of the people,” opposition coalition secretary Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba said in an interview on the Venevision network before the court’s announcement. “All of this generates political instability.”

The Supreme Court is denying the opposition’s request for copies of the legal files, Torrealba said.

Lame-duck legislators named more than a dozen Supreme Court justices Dec. 22, just weeks before the new congress takes power Jan. 5.

“We respect the constitution and you do not,” outgoing National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said after the Dec. 22 vote. “This type of confrontation is inevitable.”

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Most Corrupt Regime in History Charge 'Opposition' with Corruption

from Yahoo News
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are disputing the election of eight opposition candidates to the National Assembly, a move the opposition says seeks to undermine its landslide victory in legislative elections.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court said it had received motions by losing candidates to overturn the results in several districts. It didn't say on what grounds the challenges were made and nobody from the high court would comment.

But if the court were to overturn the results it would deprive the opposition alliance of the two-thirds "supermajority" it won this month by a single seat and which greatly enhances its power to rein in Maduro, sack Cabinet ministers and even convoke an assembly to rewrite Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution.

Many in the opposition are denouncing the move by the government-stacked court as a guise to rob the opposition of the full fruits of its victory. They're also calling on the international community to condemn the move and safeguard the Venezuelans' electoral wishes.

"You can't use legal tricks to steal something the voters didn't want to give you," proclaimed Jesus Torrealba, secretary general of the opposition coalition.

"We're not living in a functional democracy," Torrealba said in a press conference with several leaders of the incoming congress. "We're living in a country where you can be surer about the operating hours of a liquor store than the elections tribunal of the Supreme Court."

Maduro and his allies have been defiant in the face of defeat, vowing to deepen the revolution started by Chavez and overrun what they refer to as the "bourgeois parliament."

On Tuesday, the embattled leader briefly and only obliquely referred to the emerging dispute over the election results, saying that if authorities don't he would reveal at an appropriate time evidence of vote-buying and other types of poll fraud by the opposition.

"They're playing dirty," Maduro said during his weekly television program.

Instead, he used special decree powers to extend for three years a longstanding ban on firing workers, a move he said would protect the poor from the "economic war" being waged by his enemies at home and abroad.

"The people have someone who will protect them," Maduro said.

He also convoked for the second half of January a special "national congress" of supporters to define the next steps for the Bolivarian revolution in the face of the recent setback at the ballot boxes.

The announcements follow a frenzy of activity by the lame-duck congress, which in emergency sessions since the Dec. 6 election rammed through 13 Supreme Court appointments and set up in the legislature building a possibly parallel assembly comprised of grassroots activists.

Such moves have angered the opposition, which accuses Maduro of being deaf to the wishes of 65 percent of Venezuelans who voted for candidates rejecting policies blamed for triple-digit inflation, widespread shortages and one of the world's highest murder rates.

With both sides digging in, the threat of a return of the sort of street violence and clashes that paralyzed the oil-rich nation in 2014 is looming.

On Tuesday, a group of pro-government militants called on Twitter for a rally Jan. 5 for a "constitutional taking of the National Assembly by the people."

Torrealba is also urging opposition supporters to show up that day at the congress to peacefully accompany the new lawmakers as they take their seats.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Venezuela Frees Workers Detained For Not Making Enough Pepsi

from the Huffington Post
Employees at a Pepsi-Cola Venezuela plant have been freed after being detained by the government for halting operations, Empresas Polar, the owner of the local Pepsi division, said late on Sunday.

The company blamed the production pause on a lack of raw materials but the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro, has routinely accused Polar, the country’s largest food and beverage producer, of slowing production or hoarding goods to spur product shortages in the Opec nation’s struggling economy.

“Pepsi-Cola Venezuela managed to obtain full freedom for its Caucagua plant workers, who were arbitrarily detained on Friday,” tweeted Polar, which has denied Maduro’s claims.

Polar said labor ministry inspectors arrested several workers on Friday and ordered the reactivation of its plant in the town of Caucagua in the central state of Miranda.

Reuters was unable to immediately obtain comment from the government.

Polar said production lines were halted because of delays due to the country’s currency control system that left it unable to import the necessary raw materials.

Venezuelan media reported that labor ministry inspectors, along with local police, ordered the arrest of the manager, two human resources workers and a lawyer at the plant.

Maduro has described the country’s chronic product shortages as the product of an “economic war” led by opposition leaders and private companies.

His critics say currency controls have left companies unable to obtain imported machine parts and raw materials while price controls have made it unprofitable to produce many basic consumer goods.

The decaying state-led model created by the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez has also suffered heavily from the collapse in 2014 in the price of oil, which provides nearly all of the country’s export revenue.

The ruling Socialist party lost control of Congress for the first time in 16 years in a sweeping opposition victory in December that was driven largely by anger over the economic crisis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Socialists Packing the Venezuelan Courts

from Yahoo News
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is promising to protect the country's socialist revolution from what he says are "bad guy" opposition leaders who will take control of Congress next month.

Speaking from the mausoleum of the late President Hugo Chavez Tuesday night, Maduro said he would fight the agenda of opposition leaders who won a landslide victory in Sunday's legislative election.

The embattled socialist president stood directly over the marble sarcophagus where his mentor's body rests, and appealed to Chavez for guidance.

"Oh how we miss you, Commander; your advice and your fighting spirit," he said. "I hope that the historic project you left to Venezuela and the world can continue."

Maduro promised to reject a law backed by opposition leaders that would free imprisoned anti-government activists.

That rejection would be mostly symbolic, because in Venezuela bills can become law even if the president does not approve, so long as the Supreme Court does not find the legislation unconstitutional.

Maduro also pledged to shake up his cabinet in the wake of the opposition's first national victory since Chavez initiated the socialist movement in 1998, and to hold a summit to examine what went wrong in the election in which, he said, "the bad guys won."

A group of justices requested early retirement in the run up to the vote, raising fears that the socialist party would try to pack the court if the election went against them. Those justices could in theory reverse any legislation the new National Assembly approves.

On Tuesday, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello announced that the government would appoint 12 new Supreme Court judges before the opposition leaders are sworn in on Jan. 5.

Cabello also said the National Assembly's television channel would remain in the hands of the station's government workers.

The tiny channel has become a point of contention because the opposition has been almost completely frozen out of the mainstream media here. State television stations, including this one, have become organs of propaganda for the socialist party.

Opposition members now use a YouTube channel to get their announcements out, and have already been eagerly planning what they will do with the National Assembly channel.

Venezuela has not seen a divided government since Chavez came to power in 1998, and Maduro's remarks Tuesday added fuel to fears that the two camps will be unable to share power.

The opposition has said it will use its new legislative power to remove Maduro from office if he refuses to work together to rescue the country's sinking economy, and even some socialists have called for his resignation in the wake of Sunday's loss.

Venezuela opposition wins supermajority in National Assembly

from Yahoo News
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's opposition won a key two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in legislative voting, according to final results released Tuesday, dramatically strengthening its hand in any bid to wrest power from President Nicolas Maduro after 17 years of socialist rule.

More than 48 hours after polls closed, the National Electoral Council published the final tally on its website, confirming that the last two undecided races broke the opposition coalition's way, giving them 112 out of 167 seats in the National Assembly that's sworn in next month. The ruling socialist party and its allies got 55 seats.

The publication ends two days of suspense in which Maduro's opponents claimed a much-larger margin of victory than initially announced by electoral authorities, who were slow to tabulate and release results that gave a full picture of the magnitude of the Democratic Unity opposition alliance's landslide.

The outcome, better than any of the opposition's most-optimistic forecasts, gives the coalition an unprecedented strength in trying to rein in Maduro as well as the votes needed to sack Supreme Court justices and even remove Maduro from office by convoking an assembly to rewrite Hugo Chavez's 1999 constitution.

Although divided government should foster negotiations, Maduro in his first remarks following the results showed little sign of moderating the radical course that voters rejected.

Even while recognizing defeat, the former bus driver and union organizer blamed the "circumstantial" loss on a right-wing "counterrevolution" trying to sabotage Venezuela's oil-dependent economy and destabilize the government.

On Tuesday, Maduro visited Chavez's mausoleum in the 23 of January hillside slum where the government suffered a shock loss in Sunday's vote. Accompanied by members of his top military command, he accused his opponents of sowing discrimination and class hatred, cautioning workers who voted for the opposition that they would regret their decision to abandon support for the government.

"The bad guys won, like the bad guys always do, through lies and fraud," said Maduro. "Workers of the fatherland know that you have a president, a son of Chavez, who will protect you."

Hardliners in the notoriously fractious opposition seem similarly inflexible, preferring to talk about ending Maduro's rule before his term ends in 2019 rather than resolving Venezuela's triple-digit inflation, plunging currency and the widespread shortages expected to worsen in January as businesses close for the summer vacation.

Moderates however are calling for dialogue to give Maduro a chance to roll back policies they blame for the unprecedented economic crisis. But with most Venezuelans bracing for more hardship as oil prices, the lifeblood of the economy, hover near a seven-year low, even they recognize the window for change is small and closing fast.

"If Maduro doesn't change we'll have to change the government," Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in 2013 presidential elections, told The Associated Press. "But the opposition's response to the economic crisis right now can't be more politics."

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

How Far WIll Maduro Go to Protect an Illegitimate "Revolution"t?

from Yahoo News
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Here's the latest on developments following Sunday's historic opposition victory in Venezuela's congressional elections (all times local):

TIME 7:10 p.m.

Opposition leaders spent the day in front of cameras giving election updates and outlining their plans for the new congress.

But Venezuelans had to go to YouTube to find them. No national channel was broadcasting the opposition's statements.

Venezuelan media have almost completely blacked out opposition events. In response, anti-government parties created a special YouTube channel for the elections.

On Sunday night, after the opposition swept the polls in an unprecedented victory, state television briefly broadcast the celebratory press conference. But then it was back to pro-socialist party roundtables and reality TV shows about social safety net programs


3:50 p.m.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has sent a message of support to Nicolas Maduro after the Venezuelan leader's governing socialist party suffered a sharp defeat in legislative elections.

Ortega's letter praises Maduro's party and his predecessor, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It adds that "as difficult as the horizon may appear, we have no doubt" that other victories are in the future.

Ortega's letter Monday says this is "a day to think of new battles" and explore "paths to many new victories." He offers that the fortunes of a country, "like the ways of the Lord, are mysterious paths."

Nicaragua is one of many countries in the region that have benefited from Venezuelan oil on preferential terms.

And Ortega's example may offer a little comeback hope to his Venezuelan ally.

Ortega led his country from 1979 to 1990, after the Nicaraguan Revolution ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza. He lost the presidency in a 1990 election, but was voted back into power in 2006.


3:15 p.m.

Venezuelan opposition spokesman Jesus Torrealba says his coalition has won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly in Sunday's national election. That could pave the way to major changes in the socialist country.

Elections officials have not yet released full results, but say the opposition coalition won at least 99 seats in the incoming 167-seat legislature. The ruling socialist party won 46 seats. But 22 of the remaining races still have not been called.

Torrealba said Monday the opposition had won 112 seats, and was fighting for four more.

With a two-thirds majority, the opposition could call an assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution and would have the power to fire Supreme Court judges.

With a smaller three-fifths majority, the opposition could begin to dismantle the socialist party's hold over other state institutions, by censuring and removing ministers and vice presidents.

A simple majority in congress will not allow the allow it to do much aside from annoy the administration by doing things like holding up budgets and refusing permission for foreign trips.


3:10 p.m.

Cuban President Raul Castro has sent allied Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a message of support, tacitly accepting the defeat of Maduro's party in legislative elections.

Castro's brief message was published on the front pages of Cuban state media Monday.

He says he's followed Maduro's "extraordinary battle" and adds: "I'm sure that there will be new victories for the Bolivarian, Chavista movement under your leadership."

Venezuela supports Cuba with billions of dollars a year in oil sold at highly subsidized prices in exchange for medical services from Cuban doctors sent to Venezuela. Cuba has worked closely with both Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.


2:20 p.m.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has issued a conciliatory statement congratulating Venezuela for a peaceful and democratic election.

President Nicolas Maduro criticized U.S. meddling in Latin America during his speech Sunday night recognizing the opposition's landslide victory.

The country was still waiting for final election results Monday, uncertain about how big an advantage the opposition will have in the National Assembly.

Kerry said voters had "expressed their overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of their country."

He called for dialogue among all parties, and urged a quick release of the final election tally.


1:20 p.m.

There's at least a glimmer of good news for President Nicolas Maduro following Sunday's historic setback for his party in Venezuelan congressional elections. His acknowledgement of defeat has helped blunt questions about the democratic credentials of his socialist government.

Argentina's President-elect Mauricio Macri said in recent weeks he'd try to remove Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc due to a lack of democracy.

But on Monday, his designated foreign minister says that's changed.

Susana Malcorra says there's now no reason for that effort. In her words, "We have to recognize that the government very clearly recognized the results."


Kirchner Sabotaging Transition?

from The Telegraph
With only three days left in office, many heads of state would be winding down and savouring their final hours of presidential pampering.

Not Cristina Kirchner. The Argentine president, who on Thursday hands over to her arch rival, businessman Mauricio Macri, has spent the dying days of her presidency in a whirlwind of activity.

"It seems the idea is to fill the transition process with obstacles and create as many problems as possible for the new government," said Mr Macri, whose election on November 22 marked a failure for Mrs Kirchner to install her chosen socialist successor, Daniel Scioli.

Mr Macri, mayor of Buenos Aires and former president of Boca Juniors football club, complains that she is obstructing access to public accounts and hampering a smooth transition.

“This is a sad choice that the president has made. Everything she does that she thinks will hurt our government will in reality hurt all Argentines,” he added.

She has approved the delegation of billions of dollars of spending to provincial governors. With ten days to go until the December 10 handover, she changed the budget for the next year, with increased spending on Congress, the judiciary, the security forces and her prized social plans including Football For All – a programme which shows free football matches, alongside political messages.

The decree, 2585, signalled a surge in spending which she said was necessary for the cabinet to “guarantee the fulfilling of its objectives while in power".

She has appointed a slew of new ambassadors – to Cuba, Australia and the UAE – which, as political appointees, can be replaced by Mr Macri, but present a headache.

Alejandro Vanoli, the combative president of the central bank, was expected to resign – as many of Mrs Kirchner’s appointees have done – but is clinging on.

And even the handover ceremony has been contentious, with Mrs Kirchner planning on holding a final “farewell” rally on Wednesday night, followed by a handover in Congress on Thursday.

Mr Macri wants the handover to be at the Casa Rosada presidential palace.

The row has seen the revered sixth-generation silversmith Juan Carlos Pallarols caught up in the melee, after an assistant was threatened with detention if he did not deliver the presidential baton to the ceremonial authorities immediately.

He later received a formal apology from the authorities responsible for the inauguration.

Mrs Kirchner has hit back, accusing Mr Macri on Sunday of “shouting” at her on the phone.

“I must confess that I was surprised by the shouting of the president-elect,” she said, in a lengthy letter published on her website on Sunday.

“I had to remind him at one point that beyond our statures, he was a man and I a woman and he had no right to treat me in this way.”

Her role after the election is unclear. She has not, unlike many previous presidents, sought immunity through a seat in the Senate. When asked on election day what her plans were, she replied: “I will carry on the fight.”

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Beginning of the End for Chavismo?

Venezuela's opposition trounced the ruling Socialists on Sunday to win the legislature for the first time in 16 years and gain a long-sought platform to challenge President Nicolas Maduro's rule of the OPEC nation.

The opposition Democratic Unity coalition won 99 seats to the Socialists' 46 in the 167-national National Assembly, the election board said, with some districts still to be counted.

Fireworks were set off in celebration in pro-opposition districts of Caracas when the results were announced, while government supporters dismantled planned victory parties.

Mr Maduro, 53, quickly acknowledged the defeat, the worst for the ruling "Chavismo" movement since its founder Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.

"We are here, with morals and ethics, to recognise these adverse results," Mr Maduro said in a speech to the nation, although he blamed his defeat on a campaign by business leaders and other opponents to sabotage the economy.

"The economic war has triumphed today," Mr Maduro said.

His quick acceptance of the results eased tensions in the volatile nation where the last presidential election in 2013, narrowly won by Mr Maduro, was bitterly disputed and anti-government protests last year led to 43 deaths.

Opposition leaders, who have lost over-and-over since Chavez's first election victory 17 years ago, were jubilant, even though their victory was mainly thanks to public disgust at Venezuela's deep economic recession.

"We're going through the worst crisis in our history," coalition head Jesus Torrealba said. "Venezuela wanted a change and that change came ... a new majority expressed itself and sent a clear and resounding message."

Opposition sources predicted that once counting was finalised, they would win as many as 113 seats. That would give them a crucial two-thirds majority needed to shake up institutions such as the courts or election board.

The result could also embolden government foes to seek a recall election against Mr Maduro in 2016 if they garner the nearly four million signatures needed to trigger the referendum.

The government's defeat was another blow to Latin America's left following last month's swing to the centre-right in Argentina's presidential election.

The Democratic Unity coalition capitalised on discontent among Venezuela's 29 million people with the world's highest inflation and product shortages.

Critics say failed nationalisations, rigid currency controls, and hostility towards the private sector spurred the economic crisis and that it was then exacerbated by a global slump in oil prices. Venezuela depends on crude for 96 per cent of its export revenue.

Many Venezuelans blame the economic chaos on Mr Maduro, who lacks the charisma and political skills of Chavez, his mentor and Venezuela's leader for 14 years before his death from cancer in 2013.

"I used to be a proud Chavista," said Rodrigo Duran, a 28-year-old security guard who switched allegiance in his vote on Sunday. "But how can I carry on when my salary doesn't allow me to feed my children? They deceived us."

Venezuela's opposition will now have the chance to break the ruling party's control over the budget and seek amnesty for dozens of jailed activists, including hardline leader Leopoldo Lopez.

"I'm so happy," said his beaming wife, Lilian Tintori, who has become a prominent campaigner for the opposition.

With inflation believed to be in triple digits, vast lines outside supermarkets owing to shortages of basic goods and an 80 per cent collapse of the currency on the black market, it was the economy that turned Venezuelans away from the government.

Underlining the depth of feeling, videos circulating online seemed to show five prominent socialist politicians – including Chavez's brother Adan – being booed at voting centres on Sunday, with crowds yelling "the government will fall!" or "thief!".

"I voted because we want a change in this country. We're bored of so many queues, food shortages, a minimum wage that doesn't get us anywhere," said Cristobal Jesus Medina Chacon, a 27-year-old engineer who arrived at his voting station in the western city of San Cristobal at 4am.

South America's bloc of left-wing governments, dominant for over a decade, has lost some of its clout this year.

Center-right opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won Argentina's presidential election last month, ending 12 years of left-wing rule, and Brazil's leftist President Dilma Rousseff is battling impeachment for alleged corruption.

Glum government supporters followed Maduro's lead in accepting the results in Venezuela on Sunday.

"That's democracy," said Gloria Torres, 54, an administrator who organised prayer vigils for Chavez when he was dying. "We're Chavistas and the fight continues."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Will the Chavistas EVER Step Aside?

from the Miami Herald

CARACAS Like many 16-year-olds, Yannilay Liendo spends the better part of her day glued to Facebook. However, unlike her peers, she’s not using the social media site to connect with friends or catch up on gossip — she’s trying to find diapers and formula for her baby.

Venezuela’s grinding economic crisis has generated a plethora of problems including triple-digit inflation, shortages of basic goods and massive lines at markets. But it’s also inspiring boot-strap solutions, including a growing number of bartering websites for desperate shoppers.

More than 14,000 people are following the Twitter handle @spvzla where medicine is traded and bartered. The Facebook page “Trueque Anti-Bachaqueros Caracas” — another popular swapping site — has more than 10,300 members. And the image sharing site Instagram has become the go-to place to find baby items. The page Mamaenapuros, or “Mom in a Jam,” for example, has more than 22,000 followers.

As Venezuela heads into key legislative elections Sunday, perhaps no issue is threatening the ruling party more than economic malaise. Plummeting oil prices have sapped the government’s ability to import items in a nation where about 70 percent of all goods come from abroad. In addition, Draconian price and currency controls, along with entrenched corruption, have created thriving black markets, where subsidized goods are hoarded and then sold for two and three times their official price.

As a result, while the nation boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, it’s having trouble keeping aspirin and car batteries on the shelves.

That has soured the national mood, and the majority of polls predict the opposition will win control of the National Assembly for the fist time in more than 15 years.

Liendo started her Facebook swapping site, called Super Anti-Bachaqueo Truekes, or, roughly, Super Anti-Gouger Swap, three months ago. On the first day of its launch, 300 people joined. There are now more than 1,100 members.

The innovation was a matter of desperation, she said. She could never find food in her neighborhood, but a nearby pharmacy often carried sought-after items like soap and shampoo.

“I used to have to wake up early in the morning to find what I needed,” she explained. “Now I just buy whatever I find.”

In a sense, the economy has turned everyone into a hoarder. On a recent weekday, when a shipment of tampons came into a local pharmacy in an upscale part of Caracas, business men on their lunch break were scooping them up by the handful. While some said they were taking them to their spouses, others said they hoped they might be able to trade them with friends for other toiletries.

Maria, 24, a reseller who asked for anonymity because re-selling is illegal, said stores in her neighborhood of central Caracas are adapting to the new buying habits by offering baskets of random bundled goods at a fixed price designed to be swapped on the secondary market.

The government quit releasing its monthly “scarcity index” at the beginning of 2014, when the rate hit 22 percent. But since then, analysts and shoppers say the problems only have gotten worse. Polls suggest that shortages are now the country’s top concern.

José Goméz, a 57-year-old public accountant, said it had been five days since he could find sugar or coffee.

“In my house we don’t even know what a bean looks like anymore,” he said. “It’s been eight months since I’ve been able to buy deodorant.”

The administration acknowledges the shortages but disputes the cause. President Nicolás Maduro has blamed opposition sabotage and international pressure for the crisis. In recent months, Venezuela has shut down the border with Colombia to fight smuggling, and rolled out even stricter price controls. Shoppers may go to only government-run stores on certain days, and expectant mothers and parents are often required to show sonograms and birth certificates to buy baby items.

Earlier this year, Maduro accused two unnamed opposition parties of running networks of bachaqueros, or re-sellers, “to wage war against the people.”

In a working-class Caracas suburb, a foot soldier in that war was wearing a glittery headband and had butterflies painted on her fingernails. Maria said she became a bachaquera almost three years ago out of sheer desperation. She needed to support her two children and couldn’t afford to wait in line. While many demonize her profession, she said she’s simply providing a service.

“Not everyone can stand in a line for six hours to buy two or three things,” she said. “If you’re in a line like that you can’t even go to work.”

Maria said she has a network of people inside government-run supermarkets who provide her with the products. A package of diapers that go for 62 bolivares (just under $10 at the official exchange rate) in government stores, will fetch 500 bolivares on the black-market, she said. Right now the hot items are chicken and baby formula, she said.

In some ways, bartering is deeply ingrained in Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism. The late President Hugo Chávez encouraged the creation of “Socialist Swap Markets” as he thumbed his nose at U.S. capitalism. And the cash-strapped but oil-rich country also has swapped its crude for medical services from Cuba, rice from Guyana and cattle from Nicaragua.

But this new wave of bartering comes from necessity rather than ideology.

About six months ago, Yolexis Bello, 31, said she spent five hours looking for diapers for her baby. Amid the frustration she used the messaging service WhatsApp to form a group called “Searching for Diapers.” It quickly hit its maximum capacity of 100 members.

Since she started the network, she said she rarely has to wait in line. She simply buys what’s easily available and finds someone else to swap with.

“We all help each other and we haven’t had to go to the bachaqueros,” she said.

Although she’s pleased with what she’s created, she said it’s not a solution.

“For me, the only solution is for this government to step aside,” she said. “Nothing they’re doing is working.”

John Kerry Won't be Travelling to Caracas Anytime Soon...

Nicolas Maduro, the embattled Venezuelan president, has threatened to throw the managers of food giant Kraft Heinz into prison for hoarding, describing them as “bourgeois parasites”.

Mr Maduro, who is likely to lose control of the National Assembly on Sunday in the most hotly-contested election in more than a decade, took aim at the company during his weekly Tuesday night show.

“So we have the company Heinz – I don’t know who owns it,” he said, seated behind his desk in the style of his charismatic predecessor Hugo Chavez, wearing his trademark tracksuit.

“Tomorrow the authorities will go to inspect it. And if the bosses are sabotaging it, then they must go to prison. Immediately. Enough with this impunity. They must go to prison. All the managers.”

Mr Maduro, who has regularly accused the US of “imperialism” and sabotage, said that workers had told him food was being wasted. And he told the local staff he would attack them with an “arm of steel”.

“I believe in the workers,” he said. “Whenever you speak to the managers they say: ‘Oh it’s because we’re running out of dollars,’ and so on. Well, they are out of time.

“Enough with bourgeois parasites. The people are sending a clear message, and I am clearly receiving that message in my heart.

“Run, or we will put you in prison. I know they are hoarding to pressure the people.

“It’s over, saboteurs. Parasites.”

Kraft Heinz, the world's fifth largest food company, told The Telegraph they did not wish to comment on the threats. By Wednesday afternoon, almost 24 hours after Mr Maduro's speech, there was no sign of raids or arrests at the company's sites.

The Venezuelan leader has been rattled by the impending election, which threatens to end the dominance of the “Chavista” politics that has ruled Venezuela since Chavez was elected in 2002.

With Chavez’s untimely death from cancer in March 2013, aged 58, Mr Maduro took over the reins of the regime. But, lacking his predecessor’s skill or charisma, he has failed to hold the fractious country together.

The latest poll puts the opposition MUD coalition on 57 per cent, with the government at 37 per cent. Mr Maduro has said he would govern in a "civilian military union" if the opposition wins, leading to fears of widespread social unrest.
Look forward to a big "free-stuff" giveaway just prior to the vote on Sunday. Last time it was electronics. This year it'll probably be Mac & Cheese.
John & Theresa Heinz-Kerry

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

European Parliment Gives Green Light to Maduro to Steal the Upcoming Venezuelan Election

from El Universal
The European Parliament (EP) had plans to send and electoral mission to Venezuela to monitor the upcoming parliament vote on December 6. However, following an assessment from the European External Action Service (EEAS) on the country security conditions, they gave up, Efe reported

The parliament conference of presidents had agreed, by majority, to send the mission on December 3-7.

The Venezuela-Argentina Plot Thickens...

The flight arriving to Buenos Aires, Argentina, departed from Venezuela with only six passangers.

from the PanAm Post
María Adelaida and María Teresa Maduro Moros, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s sisters, traveled on Friday, November 27, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and left the country the next day. The reason for the trip is still unknown.

“For me, it’s suspicious that there were only 6 passengers on a commercial jetliner,” a well informed source told the PanAm Post.

The women flew to Argentina to meet Cristina Kirchner, who will serve as Argentina’s president for only 10 more days, journalist Gabriel Bracesco wrote on Twitter.

“On Friday, Maduro’s two sisters arrived [in Buenos Aires]. They visited Kirchner in Olivos [her residency] and left on Saturday in the Embraer Conviasa YV 3016 [plane]. They were carrying ‘things,’” Bracesco wrote.

The journalist, who writes for Clarín newspaper and is very active on social media, added that these two women did not go through customs, neither as they entered the country nor as they left.

“Maduro, María Teresa, passport number 0457345986 and Maduro, María Adelaida, passport number 0457245436, did not go through customs,” he confirmed.

Amplio. hermanas Maduro estaban acompañadas por: Ricarda del Carmen Briceño Luz Antolinez de Gomez Colmenares Hernandez Luz María Hernández

— Bracesco (@Bracesco) November 30, 2015

The journalist asked: “What did they come to take [back to Venezuela]?”

Neither of the two countries’ authorities have confirmed the meeting with Kirchner, which was held in secret.

The sisters did not travel alone: four individuals accompanied them. According to Bracesco, they were Ricarda del Carmen Briceño, Luz Antolinez de Gomez, Colmenares Hernández, and Luz María Hernández.

The commercial jet belongs to Conviasa (Consorcio Venezolano de Industrias Aeronáuticas y Servicios Aéreos, in Spanish), Venezuela’s largest airline and flag carrier. The plane landed in the military area of Jorge Newbery airport, which is generally used for domestic flights.

Most international flights depart from Ministro Pistarini International Airport (commonly known as Ezeiza Airport). While Pistarini Airport is 22 kilometers away from Buenos Aires, Newbery Airport is only 2 kilometers northeast of the city center.

AVIÓN de las Hermanas de Nicolás Maduro, Adelaida y María Teresa Maduro, se reunieron secretamente con CFK en Olivos

— Matías Landolfi (@MatiLandolfi) November 30, 2015

“The airplane of Nicolás Maduro’s sisters, Adelaida and María Teresa Maduro. They met in secret with Kirchner in Olivos.”

An experienced commercial pilot who spoke to the PanAm Post under conditions of anonymity said that an airport’s military area is generally used by military personnel, politicians, diplomats, or — as in this case — relatives of important figures.

The PanAm Post has discovered that both sisters work in the public sector. While María Teresa Maduro Moros works for the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security, her sister, María Adelaida, works at the Public Defender Service.

Ricarda del Carmen Briceño, who flew with Maduro’s sisters, works at INCES, the Institute for Socialist Training and Education, an entity that forms a part of the Ministry of People’s Power for Social Work Process.

On the other hand, Luz Antolinez de Gomez has no record of social security since 2012, which means that she has not had a formal job for three years.

In 2014, Nicolás Maduro Guerra, President Nicolás Maduro’s son, visited Patagonia and stayed in one of the Kirchner family’s hotels in El Calafate. On that occasion, he traveled with a large retinue that booked at least nine rooms.

Maduro recently warned Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president-elect, that his people are ready to protest and resist his economic measures. Maduro said that Argentineans are ready to take to the streets if necessary.

“I know what I’m talking about: the Argentinean people are ready to fight,” President Maduro told supporters on Saturday, November 29, during a rally in Maracaibo.

“What (the opposition) should do is recognize the Bolivarian Revolution and acknowledge the results of the December 6 (midterm elections),” he added. “They should stop conspiring and supporting right-wing extremist groups.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Nation of Thugs

from the Financial Times
Inside a small house in La Acequia, one of the gritty shantytowns that drape the hills around Caracas, Carlos is preparing for a day’s work: loading-up ammunition, piling-up grenades, stacking flak jackets and black balaclavas.

“We have a kidnapping now, so we must get ready,” says the 28-year-old, who works with an 80-member gang. It has a portfolio of interests, from kidnapping and drug-running to killing. He claims it also has a powerful ally: the Venezuelan government.

“Sometimes government people send us to murder. We work in partnership. It’s screwed up,” says Carlos, who asked for his real name not to be published, pointing to assault rifles he claims came from the Bolivarian national guard. “I don’t like to see my country like this but it’s the way things have turned out. We have become a nation of malandros,” or thugs, he concludes.

Venezuela’s descent into hoodlum state from beacon of revolutionary socialism — a picture of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, hangs above Carlos’s head — has been spectacular.

Three decades ago, Venezuela boasted some of Latin America’s highest living standards. Today, after 17 years of revolution, most people cannot find toilet paper in shops — even though the country has larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.

Corruption is rife and violence is out of control: 25,000 murders last year made Venezuela one of the deadliest countries in the world.

But this weekend Venezuelans will elect the 167 members of the National Assembly and, for the first time in 17 years, the vote will probably end the socialist government’s majority. It promises to be a decisive moment.

President Nicolás Maduro has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to ensure “victory”, including bypassing the assembly and governing in a military-civic alliance in the “name of the people”, although there is no evidence that the people support him. Some polls suggest the opposition will win Sunday’s election by as much as two to one. Sixty-seven per cent of Venezuelans say Mr Maduro should not finish his term.

The sense of disenchantment is apparent even among once-fervent supporters of the revolution. “I believed in Chávez. I don’t believe in Maduro,” Carlos says. “Maduro is not Chávez,” he adds. That last phrase is being repeated around the country like a mantra.

Economic freefall

That souring is reflected in Venezuela’s decrepit economy. Shortages are rife and health services are collapsing. Triple-digit inflation — estimates put it at 185 per cent — is destroying social gains. Minimum monthly wages of 9,649 bolívars are worth only $10 at the black market exchange rate, less than in Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. This year, the economy is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to shrink by 10 per cent, following a 4 per cent drop in 2014. Next year, it is forecast to shrink by 6 per cent.

Allegations of corruption and drug-trafficking reach the highest levels. Last month, two nephews of Cilia Flores, Mr Maduro’s wife, were arraigned in a New York court to face charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US. The government’s usual response is to blame “the stooges of imperialism” who want to “sell the country”.

“This is the time for change,” says Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned politician Leopoldo López, who has become one of the best-recognised faces of the opposition. “There is a permanent violation of civil and human rights, intolerance and aggression.”

The opposition’s factions have buried their differences to unite as Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, a political umbrella; it did the same in 2013 when Henrique Capriles narrowly lost the presidential election to Mr Maduro. The campaign message is again abstract and free of concrete proposals — aside from an amnesty for political prisoners.

The government’s unpopularity is benefiting the opposition by default, even in former chavista strongholds. Jacqueline Jiménez lives in Petare, one of Latin America’s largest slums. The 30-year old mother of three always used to vote for Venezuela’s ruling socialist party, or PSUV; not any more. Her husband, a bricklayer, was shot and killed two weeks ago on his way to work — all because he had no money on him. “This revolution was supposed to take care of us. Instead it is killing us, impoverishing us,” she laments. “I will vote for the opposition because this government is useless, and dangerous.”

Increasingly, the rest of the world sees Venezuela this way. The country comes last on the World Justice Project’s rule of law index, below Afghanistan. Senior figures such as Diosdado Cabello, the head of the national assembly and the second most powerful man in Venezuela, face US allegations of drug trafficking. Mr Cabello has denied such charges on his television programme, saying that the allegations are part of a “campaign” against socialist Venezuela.

Such invective no longer has the impact it once did locally, however — neither does it wash in much of South America. Even former allies, such as Argentina, are withdrawing their support as the so-called “pink tide” of leftist leaders that once governed much of the region loses power amid the commodity price crash. Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president-elect, recently argued that Venezuela should be expelled from Mercosur, the regional trade group, because of rights violations.

Massive anti-incumbent feeling’

Even so, redressing the situation in Venezuela will be hard. The election run-up has seen even greater violence. Last week opposition politician Luis Manuel Díaz was shot dead at a rally. Ms Tintori, who was standing next to him, was splashed with blood. “They want to kill me,” she told the Financial Times.

Mr Maduro’s response that night on state television was typical. He blamed the opposition for inciting violence and for paying Venezuelans $50,000 to pretend to be gun-carrying government supporters. He said the incident would be investigated — although what that means in a country that Human Rights Watch says suffers from a “near total lack of judicial independence” is moot.

“There is a massive anti-incumbent feeling,” says Javier Corrales, a Venezuela scholar at Amherst College, who also cautions it would be wrong to assume such sentiments will translate into electoral results. “This government has no interest in relinquishing power.”

The reasons for that are clear. Although the presidency is not at stake, an opposition majority in assembly would wield considerable power. It could control spending, grant amnesty to political prisoners, investigate corruption and withhold permission for the president to travel abroad. A two-thirds, or even three-fifths, majority would give it greater powers still, including the ability to appoint judges. “The government fears the possibility of being held accountable,” Mr Corrales says. “It is so complicit in crimes of all kinds.”

Alejandro Moreno, a priest and social scientist who researches violence from his bullet-pierced home in Petare, agrees. “We don’t have a criminal state, we have crime that has turned into a state,” says the 81-year old. “While the chavistas remain in power this won’t stop.” The country’s institutions have been gutted and corruption has soared amid a lack of checks and balances. “The design of the political economy here only benefits the corrupt,” says a former Chávez minister.

That is especially true of the military, which is stuffed with loyal generals, who in turn make up a quarter of the cabinet. Like other government insiders, they enjoy access to foreign exchange at preferential rates. Venezuela’s vice-president, Jorge Arreaza, has said smugglers siphoned $3.6bn worth of gasoline last year. Analysts believe the military participated in the contraband racket.

“There is a corrupt parallel state within the government,” says Luis Cedeño, of the Observatory on Organised Crime, an NGO. “Military men oversee smuggling and drug trafficking . . . The state has delegated functions to criminal gangs.”

Changing the apparatus

The cost of this corruption and violence is huge. Asdrúbal Oliveros and Jessica Grisanti, two local economists, estimate it costs more than 12 per cent of economic output a year. Transparency International ranks Venezuela near the bottom of its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and Yemen.

As for other institutions, the government controls the Supreme Court, state oil company PDVSA, the central bank and also the electoral council — which polls suggest 70 per cent of Venezuelans do not trust. It also has near-absolute control of the media, can use public money to fund its campaign and is widely believed to coerce government employees to vote for socialist candidates. This combination makes up what officials perhaps mean when they talk of “a perfect machinery that will take us to the perfect victory” on Sunday.

On top of that, there is intimidation. During a recent rally in Petare, congressman Miguel Pizarro of the MUD coalition says shots were fired at his campaign caravan when supporters were confronted by men wearing balaclavas and the logo of the ruling PSUV. “As the government loses support, it doesn’t have any other option than to appeal to thugs with machine guns,” he says. “But while they may have all the machine guns, we have something more powerful: the strength and clamour of people who are tired.”

Juan Contreras, a socialist congressman seeking re-election in Caracas’ 23 de Enero slum, is an exception: a politician who still defends the government. He is even optimistic about Sunday’s result. He calls criticism of the government “attacks to weaken the revolutionary process” by rightwing foes backed by Washington, and says soaring crime rates are “brought up as a strategy to destabilise the government”. He claims the same of the economy.

“Our people perfectly understand there is an economic war coming from the parasitic rightwing bourgeoisie,” he says. “After 17 years of resisting, they now try to make our people surrender through hunger. I feel we have no reason to be worried about the elections.”

Any perception that the government has stolen the election, or if it fails to recognise an opposition victory, could see the MUD coalition take to the streets — as happened in 2014, when months of demonstrations calling for Mr Maduro’s resignation cost dozens of lives.

International election observers have been barred and the government has allowed only UNASUR, a regional group, to “accompany” the vote. Brazil’s electoral authority has pulled its participation from the mission, in a blow to Venezuela’s crumbling legitimacy.

Domestically, much of that legitimacy has evaporated — certainly for people like Maite Hernández. An impoverished housewife, she and her family were thrown out of a Caracas apartment that Chávez’s government had given her. Thugs much like Carlos’s gang claimed “they had orders to take it back”, she says. They then shot her 23-year-old son and left him to die. “I hope things change, for my poor family and my poor Venezuela. They have to. If not I fear where it may all end.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

Argentina Turns Right...

from USA Today
Argentina's next president decided to pursue a career in politics under the most harrowing of circumstances: 24 years ago, he was kidnapped for nearly two weeks and released only after his family — among the nation's wealthiest — paid the kidnappers a reported $2.5 million ransom.

Mauricio Macri entered politics about a decade later in a failed bid to become mayor of Buenos Aires. Two years later, he won a seat in Congress. In 2007, running again for the mayor's office, he won a resounding victory with 61% of the vote.

The son of a wealthy, Italian-born industrialist — Macri's father, Francesco "Franco" Macri, emigrated to Argentina from Italy after World War II — Macri had presidential aspirations during the country's last election in 2011, but decided instead to run for re-election. He won with an even bigger margin, more than 64%.

His 12-day abduction in 1991 that he says resulted in his political career also led police to break up a major kidnapping ring, in which most of the suspects had ties either to Argentina's intelligence service or its federal police, The New York Times reported. Many were senior officials in the police force.

A civil engineer who has long mixed politics with soccer — he was for years the president of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina's best-known clubs — Macri, 56, has promised to get rid of the nation's controversial price control system, which applies to more than 400 supermarket items.

His victory on Sunday signals the effective end of a dozen years of leftist "Kirchnerism" in Argentina, which featured heavy taxes on agricultural exports and heavy-handed government intervention in the economy. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is term-limited, succeeded her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, who served one term, from 2003 to 2007. His wife was elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011. Nestor Kirchner died in 2010.

Macri promised to reduce the state's role in the economy and embrace more pro-business policies, as well as shift Argentina's foreign policy away from close relations with the anti-American governments in Venezuela and Iran and better ties with the USA.

He also wants to scrap currency controls and make it much easier for Argentines to change their local pesos into U.S. dollars, a move that would require the country's central bank to increase its currency reserves.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Proletarianizing the Venezuelan Bourgeoisie

from Fox News
CARACAS, Venezuela – A study estimates poverty in Venezuela has hit an all-time high of some 73 percent of households.

The report says that's up from about 27 percent in 2013 and 48 percent in 2014.

It was prepared by researchers at three Venezuelan universities on the basis of surveys with 6,000 people in the nation of 30 million.

Poverty rates plummeted during the first years of Venezuela's 16-year-old socialist revolution under the late President Hugo Chavez. But they have risen more recently as the country struggles with raging inflation, a deepening recession and falling prices for oil — Venezuela's main source of foreign income.

The study was released Friday, before Venezuela holds legislative elections next month.
My guess is that the Bolivarians have already spent everybody else's money.

Is Change Coming to Argentina?

from the Wall Street Journal
SAN MIGUEL, Argentina—As a “point man” for the ruling Peronist movement, Javier Llanos works teeming slums of dirt streets and plywood homes, exhorting prospective voters in this industrial suburb of the capital to cast ballots for Daniel Scioli in Sunday’s presidential election.

But the working-class districts that ring Buenos Aires—packed with millions of voters who powered Peronism for decades—are slipping from the movement’s grasp.

Six polls show that opposition candidate Mauricio Macri, the business friendly mayor of Buenos Aires, has a lead of five to 13 percentage points over Mr. Scioli, a signal that after 12 years, a movement that thrives on a mix of welfare programs and nationalism may be defeated.

“We’ll lose it all if Macri wins,” lamented Mr. Llanos, echoing the Peronist message that a vote for change will mean disaster for Argentina. “There will be a lot of suffering for the poor.”

But many Argentines—even those in poor districts who benefited from years of generous programs—disagree. They speak of decaying or nonexistent infrastructure and rising crime and drug trafficking under Mr. Scioli, who has been governor of the Buenos Aires province for the past eight years.

“I’m 52, and I have always known Peronism,” said voter Susana Arraskaita. “I want to see something different.”

Mr. Scioli, a 58-year-old former powerboat racing champion, fell short of the threshold needed to win in a first round of voting on Oct. 25 and barely squeaked by Mr. Macri, 56. Other outcomes of that election also went against President Cristina Kirchner and the Victory Front, the Peronist coalition she leads.

In large and populous Buenos Aires province, Mrs. Kirchner’s choice for governor, her mercurial cabinet chief Aníbal Fernández, lost in the October vote to Mr. Macri’s young and charismatic candidate, María Eugenia Vidal—the first time in 28 years a non-Peronist won that post.

The Victory Front’s mayoral candidates also took a beating in the 33 densely populated districts that ring Argentina’s capital and contain about 27% of the country’s 32 million voters, with Mr. Macri’s allies scoring victories in Peronist strongholds like the bedroom city of Lanús, population 500,000.

“With the results, the myths collapsed,” said Damián Sala, an activist who works for Lanús Mayor-elect Nestor Grindetti. “We learned that even in Lanús, a movement that’s not Peronism could win.”

Peronists are now feverishly trying to get the votes they need—a campaign to be won or lost in these 33 key districts. Of particular interest to both sides are three million votes that a dissident Peronist, Sergio Massa, received in the first round.

“The mother of all battles takes place in these working-class suburbs,” said Carlos Coronel, a teacher whose second job as a local Peronist representative entails organizing activists to convince San Miguel’s voters to cast ballots for Mr. Scioli.

In Mrs. Kirchner’s two terms—and in her husband Néstor’s previous 2003-07 term—Peronism has meant largess here in the capital’s industrial belt.

In the most costly expansion of social welfare since the rule of Peronism’s founder, Gen. Juan Domingo Perón, more than six decades ago, it has delivered everything from pensions for retired manual laborers to stipends for young mothers. For those fanatical about soccer, there is “Football For All,” which broadcasts games free that had once been available only on pay-per-view. Those who are hard to employ can work in government-supported neighborhood cooperatives, producing T-shirts or toys.

Peronist organizers now remind people here that deprivation and economic calamities of the past—like the 2001 debt default, which led to riots and poverty—took place under non-Peronist leaders.

“I remember 2001, I lost everything,” said Pedro Multari, a 54-year-old San Miguel resident. “We had to start selling things so we could have enough to eat.”

Peronism built up a fierce loyalty decades ago, winning territorial control by forging close ties to organized labor, said Rodrigo Zarazaga, a Jesuit priest who has spent two decades as chaplain in these downtrodden communities. Under the Kirchners, allegiance has been secured with public assistance.

But it has come at a cost. Ballooning government spending has fueled inflation, the second-highest in Latin America, which hits the poor hard. Rev. Zarazaga said the state has also ignored infrastructure: Nearly half of all households are without sewerage or potable water in the cities ringing Buenos Aires. Many roads are unpaved, large urban areas are prone to flooding,schools are decaying and decrepit commuter trains are overcrowded.

“The urgency was to resolve problems with massive cash transfers, but the lack of infrastructure is a problem,” said Rev. Zarazaga, a Harvard-trained social scientist who directs the Research and Social Action Center, a Buenos Aires think tank. “If Mr. Scioli doesn’t recover lost ground in these suburbs, he doesn’t have a chance.”

Mr. Macri’s efforts to win support in working-class wards haven’t been easy. The message activists of his Let’s Change coalition have hammered home in small-scale meetings with voters is that for Argentina to have a stable economy, it must resolve such issues as falling reserves and the lack of access to credit, said Lanús Mayor-elect Grindetti, who is currently Mr. Macri’s finance chief in the capital.

“That’s not the first problem people think about,” Mr. Grindetti said.

A few miles to the northwest, Mr. Coronel, the Peronist organizer in San Miguel, acknowledges how hard it has been to rev up the base. “There’s a sense of fatigue with regards to Mrs. Kirchner, so the runoff looks complicated,” he said while driving in San Miguel’s neighborhoods.

Mr. Coronel and other Peronist organizers have been actively trying to help residents with everyday problems, from assisting senior citizens with paperwork for pension benefits to sprucing up sport facilities. The idea, they say, is to make clear that their help is tied to Mr. Scioli.

“What some call populism is pejorative for us,” Mr. Coronel added. “We see this as social justice.”

Even with the headwinds for Peronism, many remain loyal.

In a San Miguel avenue where Peronist activists pass out pro-Scioli pamphlets, 63-year-old María Cristina Miranda recounted how she received retirement benefits under Mrs. Kirchner´s administration, though neither she nor her employer had ever contributed to a pension plan. And she doesn’t want to lose it.

“I pray to God and the Virgin that Scioli will win,” she said.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Impossibility of Negotiating with Terrorists

from the PanAm Post
The Colombian guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) intend to avoid extradition and to be given seats in Congress without being elected. The FARC made these demands to the Colombian government on Saturday, November 7, in a press release in which they emphasize that they won’t sign a peace agreement after 50 years of conflict unless the government yields on both points.

The FARC demanded that the government directly appoint guerrilla members to seats in Congress, local Councils, and municipal assemblies during at least two four-year terms. They also called for the state to finance the political movement that will emerge after the peace process with 10 percent more public funds than those available to other parties.

Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that the “government believes that FARC members’ political participation is crucial; that is the ultimate goal of this negotiation.”

Opposition Senator Alfredo Rangel of the Democratic Center, former President Álvaro Uribe’s party, told the PanAm Post that the FARC’s involvement in politics would be “unacceptable,” because they are “a criminal organization that has recruited kids and is responsible for slavery, massacres, forced displacements, and kidnappings.”

He lashed out at the idea of gifting congressional seats to convicted FARC members like Timochenko and Iván Márquez, who have been sentenced to serve over 800 years in jail.

The FARC “are trying to impose a Castro-Chavista communist regime in Colombia,” because, “some 50 years ago, they decided to be part of the armed wing of the Communist Party,” he says.

Senator Rangel’s opinions are shared by a majority of Colombians according to a poll published on November 5. The pollster Cifras y Conceptos reported that some 71 percent of Colombians reject the FARC’s participation in politics, and 80 percent oppose the FARC’s proposal of congressional seats being directly awarded to guerrilla members.

“The Policy of Peace Leads Nowhere”

The FARC also revealed that they will launch 10 initiatives for the government to analyze during the final stage of the peace negotiations. The final agreement, the government has announced, is expected to be reached by March 2016.

Rangel deems the peace process as a “false truce.” He believes the FARC, which had agreed to cease attacks on security forces and infrastructure, continues to commit crimes, blackmail the population, and carry out illegal drug activities. “They are the world’s largest cocaine cartel,” Rangel says.

“The truce is a sham, because, despite the FARC’s announcements, crime is on the rise, coca-leaf production has increased by 50 percent, and the guerrillas are using the profits to rearm,” he says.

Lawyer Ricardo Urdaneta tells the PanAm Post that, in his view, the FARC won’t sign a final agreement, because they have no real interest in ceasing the armed struggle.

“The peace process is not leading anywhere,” he says. “Even if the FARC were acting in good faith, they don’t have the ability to bring peace to Colombia, not only because they don’t really want to, but especially because they don’t have real control over all their people, so they can’t force them to give up crime.”

Urdaneta adds that “the FARC are not the only armed group in the country.”

Urdaneta says that the peace negotiations are mere political stagecraft, because they won’t bring about any significant changes. “Every time the Santos administration announces that they are about to reach an agreement, FARC leaders come up with new demands.” Extending the negotiations, he says, allows the FARC to buy time.

Urdaneta believes that it’s unlikely that the government and the FARC will reach an agreement in March. “It’s even less likely,” he says, “that the FARC will give up their weapons.”

He adds that, to this date, no significant agreement has been reached, and that after three years of negotiations, the main points are still a source of contention.

“What kind of sentences will FARC members receive?” he asks. “Who will impart those sentences if FARC leaders are indeed prosecuted? None of this is clear. Every single one of the important issues is yet to be decided.”

As for the guerrilla’s demands to take part in Colombian politics, Urdaneta says that the group is looking to negotiate “on equal terms with the state.”

Urdaneta believes that President Santos is using the peace negotiations in order to increase his own power, just “like [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro did with the enabling laws.”

He adds that Colombian law does not exempt FARC members from serving time, nor does it provide seats in Congress to any particular group that doesn’t participate in the regular electoral process.

New Minister for Post-Conflict

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos designated Rafael Pardo, a former candidate for mayor of Bogotá, as the new Minister for the Post-Conflict.

Pardo, who came in second place, will now be in charge of designing and coordinating policies and programs related to the post-conflict after the deal with the FARC is sealed.

On Twitter, Santos explained that Pardo “has all the skills to assume this important responsibility.”

Pardo served as former President César Gaviria’s Defense minister (1991-1994) and as Labor minister during Santos’s first term, between 2010 and 2014.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Does This Sound Like a Democratic Regime to You?

Chavistas “will not surrender the revolution”, even in defeat in December's elections, warned Maduro
from Merco Press
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro warned that he wouldn’t let a defeat in December congressional elections derail his government even as his socialist party faces the possibility of losing control of the national assembly for the first time in 16 years.

While the embattled leader said he would accept the results of the election, whatever the outcome, even in a “negated hypothetical scenario” he’s not willing to “surrender the revolution.”

“I would govern with the people, always with the people and the civil-military union,” Maduro said late Thursday on state television, in response to a question on how he would govern in the event the opposition takes control of congress. “In such a scenario, Venezuela would enter one of the most turbulent and poignant stages of its political life.”

Triple-digit inflation, the worst economic contraction in the world this year and record shortages of food and medicine are undercutting support for both Maduro and his party. Candidates for Venezuela’s opposition alliance and independents are expected to get 66.3% of votes in the December election, according to September poll by Caracas-based Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis, known as IVAD.

Furthermore, Maduro in July signaled that he won’t allow international observers to monitor the election. Brazil’s electoral court TSE said earlier this month that it wouldn’t join a Unasur mission to observe the election citing delays in an accord with Venezuela’s electoral body.

“The revolution will not be surrendered ever,” Maduro said. “With the constitution in hand, we will push Venezuela’s independence forward, whatever the costs, in any way.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Lopez's Prosecutor Recants Conviction

from the NY Times
CARACAS, Venezuela — A Venezuelan prosecutor who tried opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has fled the South American nation and apologized for his role in what he called a political show trial.

Caracas prosecutor Franklin Nieves' arguments helped convict Lopez in September on what the politician's supporters say were trumped up charges of inciting violence during anti-government protests last year. He was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail.

In a video sent Friday to the Venezuelan news website La Patilla, Nieves said he fled Venezuela with his family to escape pressure from the executive branch and his superiors to stand by while "false evidence" is used to keep an innocent Lopez in jail during the appeals process. He said he would soon present evidence to demonstrate that Lopez's trial was a premediated "farce."

"For those who know me, starting now you're going to hear attempts to discredit me, to insult me, because I wouldn't lend myself anymore to continuing with this farce," a steely-eyed Nieves said in the nearly four-minute video recorded at an undisclosed location.

He urged fellow prosecutors and judges to join him in the truth-telling exercise.

"Be brave, raise your voices and express your discontent with the pressure brought to bear by our superiors, who threaten us with firing or with throwing us in jail, and always use an absurd series of arguments to threaten us to carry out their whims," said Nieves.

It's unclear where the video was shot but social media was abuzz with speculation that Nieves has fled to the United States.

The U.S. State Department and Venezuela's government had no immediate comment.

Nieves was one of five Venezuelan officials involved in Lopez's trial targeted for U.S. sanctions in a bipartisan letter sent to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew by a group of 20 members of Congress. The Obama administration has already slapped sanctions on seven other Venezuelan officials, including a high-profile prosecutor, for their alleged human rights violations during the crackdown on last year's protests, which were blamed for more than 40 deaths.

Nieves and fellow prosecutors argued during Lopez's trial that the opposition leader's vitriolic rhetoric and support for a strategy known as "The Exit" was a not-so-veiled attempt to oust President Nicolas Maduro just months after pro-government supporters swept regional elections.

Human rights groups have condemned the verdict and the U.S. government has made Lopez's release a key demand for normalizing relations.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Violence Goes to School

School burglary during vacation periods is only the tip of the iceberg of a more complex security crisis known to government officials. Five measures are being taken by the government to counter the crisis. By Pedro García Otero.

EL UNIVERSAL - Saturday October 10, 2015 12:00 AM
A week into the beginning of the school year at the República del Ecuador school, in the San Martín neighborhood (downtown Caracas), and classes are taught only until 10 am. Thieves who broke into the school this summer caused major damage when they stole copper wiring and air-conditioning units, resulting in a power outage leaving classrooms in the dark(especially preschool classrooms, which are affected the most).

Similar cases of schools that started classes with some constraints(or did not start at all) due to burglaries were reported in several states like Aragua, Bolivar and Lara (where 13 schools were burglarized during the summer break, as reported by the regional media).

In all, 294 school burglary incidents have been recorded so far this year, by Centro Comunitario de Aprendizaje (Cecodap– Community Learning Center),on the basis of information published in the press. This figure, three months before year end, already surpasses last year's total (282 incidents), and by far the total recorded in 2013 of 182 incidents, says Oscar Misle, director of this NGO dedicated to the promotion of education.

This is the only nationwide informal figure there is (albeit not the official one) on school burglary and their negative impact on the related communities. The figure is not recognized by Vice Minister for Educational Communities Soraya El Achkar. According to her, "the reporting system is very lame. Sometimes an item is initially reported stolen but, as it turns out, it was taken home over the weekend by a child's parent to be returned a few days later."

In the words of Leonardo Carvajal, a leader of the non-government organization Asamblea de Educación (Education Assembly),"schools are imbued in the insecurity problems that beset the communities around them." Schools are very attractive targets for thieves simply because they contain high value items such as desktop computers, audio visual equipment, laptop computers known as Canaimitas, photocopiers, printers, TV sets); also because of school canteens appliances (stoves, mixers, refrigerators and their motors); and last but not least, because of the food that is stored there.

A closer look at this problem shows that at least 102 burglaries have been recorded in Miranda state - one in every six schools, according to Director of Education for Miranda State Juan Maragall.

The tip of the iceberg

Misle, Carvajal and Orlando Alzuru, the President of the Federation of Venezuelan Teachers (FVM), agree that school burglary is the least of the evils facing the education sector. The most serious problem concerns violence in and around schools, and it is likely to be further exacerbated.

A study conducted by the FVM last July on 1,064 junior cycle students (first to third year) from across the country, claims that 95% of the children surveyed have witnessed acts of violence occurring at their school (57% every day, 23% at least once a week); up to 41% have seen weapons (firearms or knives) in their schools, and 77% know about robbery at or around their schools.

Fifteen months ago, a 15-year-old was killed by a fellow student at a school in the El Junquito neighborhood. And before that, in 2013, a girl was shot to death in the courtyard of Andres Bello high school in La Candelaria (downtown Caracas). Fortunately, violent crimes like these have not occurred again. Misle says that in most schools there is a categorization of forms of peer aggression ranging from harassment or bullying to overt aggression – violent acts which, according to José Betancourt, the Coordinator of the Miranda State Police (Polimiranda) Communal Police, warrant criminal prosecution channeled through special prosecutor's offices for children and adolescents, which happens in one in ten or fifteen cases Betancourt's police force is involved in. "We normally act before it gets to that," he says. Betancourt adds that community involvement in school safety encounters the problem that the role of the family has changed, and "respect for the figure of the teacher has been lost."

A five-point agenda to change

Vice Minister El Achkar's office is currently located at the Andrés Bello high school (she formerly occupied an office within the Fermín Toro high school in downtown Caracas). From there, she monitors the "Schools as Peaceful Territories" program, which began implementation two years ago on the orders of President Nicolás Maduro, and is currently under review, after moving on to the operational phase two months ago in 20,000 schools run by the Ministry of Education throughout the country. El Achkar reported that high schools principals across the country are being taught a course, and that the preliminary results of the program have shown a significant reduction in burglaries (and in school violence in general) in about 1,800 high schools in which assessments have been made.

Of course, the program, implementing UNESCO recommendations, stems from the acknowledgement that there is violence in schools, even if Vice Minister El Achkar declares that she cannot endorse the statistics in the FVM survey, "I should have to look at the survey poll and the established methodology," she says.

A first school will be declared "a peaceful territory" in Yaracuy state, after meeting the five points of such a program. The first one has to do with organizing the school by drawing up a more compact schedule for the benefit of students, thus avoiding idle time; also by establishing school councils in which teachers, parents, students and the communities participate applying collegial decision-making in general, and decision-making regarding monitoring mechanisms and penalties in particular. "The aim is to improve governance of the schools," says El Achkar.

The second point of the program is educational in nature. "The school will be a peaceful territory only if it is interesting, if it is loving, if it sets an example." The third item is about the lengthening of school days, with students staying to participate in after-school programs providing them access to new technology, sports and cultural activities. The "César Rengifo" theater program and "The Orchestra Goes to School" music program provide culturally relevant examples. This aspect of the program also contemplates three physical education sessions per week in every school and the expansion of the School Feeding Program.

The fourth item in the program contemplates partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations to share school facilities during afterschool hours and on weekends as an effective strategy to promote sports and cultural activities.

"The goal is to declare every public school the center of their communities, leveraging existing infrastructure for the community to engage in their activities there." And the fifth item involves relations with enforcement authorities. As it has been found that "schools are targeted by drugs micro trafficking, there must be stronger alliances with the justice system, involving intelligence and, when there is no other recourse, repression," says El Achkar.


Translated by Sancho Araujo

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Not Quite Simon Bolivar...

from The Daily Beast
Is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, once a mild-mannered bus driver, steering the world’s 13th-largest oil producer straight off a cliff?

Within the last few weeks he’s come to the brink of war with not one but two neighboring countries. A dispute last month with Colombia resulted in tens of thousands of refugees scrambling from a border region and caused one local politician to label him “The South American Hitler.” Last week saw Maduro accused of plotting to invade Guyana, his neighbor to the east.

While experts warn that such risky behavior could destabilize the entire region, Maduro himself accuses Bogotá and Washington of being in league to overthrow him—and also boasts of having spies in the White House.

So just what is Maduro hoping to gain from all of this?

Hand-picked by the late socialist strongman Hugo Chavez as his replacement in 2013, Maduro has overseen the swift and profound decline of Venezuela—from an oil-rich, leftist powerhouse under Chavez to an Orwellian dystopia, complete with the highest inflation rate in the world. When oil prices were high and revenues extravagant, that cushioned the people to some extent from the incompetence of the government. But that buffer is long gone.

Violent crime and kidnappings are so rampant that the State Department just issued a travel alert warning away U.S. citizens. And commodity shortages have become so severe that it’s sometimes impossible to buy a roll of toilet paper in Caracas.

Like many autocrats, Maduro appears to suffer from an acute case of political paranoia. He has cracked down on opposition leadership—handing out a 14-year-prison sentence to popular opposition leader Leopold Lopez this month over trumped up charges. And he’s repeatedly authorized the use of deadly force against demonstrators he sees as a threat to his regime.

Not is Maduro’s persecution complex limited to domestic affairs. He recently claimed neighboring Colombia and Guyana are waging “economic war” against Venezuela—charges which conveniently justify violating the sovereignty of both nations.

“If he believes a lot of what he’s saying about the conspiracy theories against him, then he’s not the sanest man in the world,” says Adam Isaacson, a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“Internationally there’s no trust of Maduro at all,” Isaacson says. “He says things that aren’t true, and he’s quite erratic.”

Among his strange declarations to the press: claiming to receive advice from the deceased Chavez via a talking bird.

Such is the state of things at the moment, that “one of the main interests of the international community now is to prevent a catastrophic implosion,” says Isaacson, because that could have disastrous implications for the entire region. “Something very ugly could happen in the next few months,” he warns.

“President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”
Something very ugly has already happened along Venezuela’s 1,500-mile border with Colombia, where Maduro’s forces have been involved in attacks on migrants for the last five weeks.

Because Maduro’s far-left government subsidizes gas and fixes the cost of food and other basic consumer goods, the rugged frontier region is home to a thriving black market smuggling commodities into Colombia, where they can be sold for great profit.

Despite the relatively small flow of goods across the border, Maduro has chosen to blame these smuggling operations for Venezuela’s chronic shortages. Furthermore, he casts the black market traffickers as the work of right-wing U.S.- and Colombian-backed operatives bent on regime change. In an effort to clamp down on illicit activity, Maduro closed the frontier last month and began targeting any and all Colombian citizens caught on the wrong side of borderline.

Experts say Maduro is again tilting at windmills.

“It is true that the low value of the Venezuelan currency causes a flow of products from Venezuela to Colombia. However, that does not explain the problem of scarcity,” writes José Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, in an email to The Daily Beast.

According to Carrasquero, the combination of inflation, reckless currency printing, and black market activity inside Venezuela is actually to blame for the chronic shortages rocking the nation.

“One might think that the closure of the border is the solution, but rather, [that] creates problems for innocent human traffic ... and affects the normal trade in goods with other countries,” writes Carrasquero.

Despite such criticism, when Maduro launched a brutal, anti-migrant campaign along the border in mid-August, Venezuelan troops rounded up hundreds of Colombian peasant farmers, many of whom were indigenous people whose ancestral lands traditionally span the frontier.

The sight of their compatriots’ houses being bulldozed touched off a wave of panic among the locals, resulting in about 20,000 terrified refugees fleeing across the border, according to the UN.

Maduro was just warming up.

In the following weeks both countries would recall their ambassadors. Venezuelan warplanes violated Colombian airspace at least twice and ground troops began making incursions over the border to harass locals and burn vehicles. A poll in mid-September showed that almost half of all Colombians believed full-scale war to be imminent.

Then, on September 19, Maduro’s soldiers opened fire on a caravan of Wayuu indigenous people as they were returning from a funeral ceremony on Venezuelan turf—killing two unarmed members of the tribe just 500 meters from the border.

The aunt of one of the slain men, Genoveba de Piayú, told Colombia’s RCN radio that she was riding in the caravan at the time of the incident, but that her vehicle had become stuck in a roadside ditch. Her nephew and a friend were coming to help on a motorcycle when the soldiers opened fire on them.

“We were pleading with [the soldiers] not to shoot, because there were women and children aboard the truck—but they paid no attention and gunned [our men] down without a word,” de Piayú said.

This reporter visited the border region between Venezuela and Colombia earlier this year to meet with endangered indigenous groups who are often caught up in the long-simmering political conflict. Not surprisingly, their version of violence on the frontier differs considerably from Maduro’s.

Locals say the porous border is home to a variety of armed groups, including leftist guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who move easily back and forth between the two nations—and allegedly receive arms and ammunition from the Venezuelan military.

“The guerrillas make their attacks over here [in Colombia], and then retreat across the river into Venezuela, where the Colombian army can’t go after them,” Roberto Cobaria, leader of the U’wa people (who live just south of Wayuus), told me when we met in the ethnic group’s traditional homeland—which also happens to be insurgent-held territory.

“We are hunters, but not fighters—and we try to stay neutral,” said Cobaria, who has seen the cross-border struggle firsthand. The U’wa shaman was working with three prominent U.S. activists when the FARC abducted them near the Arauca River in 1999; the Americans were later found executed on the Venezuelan side.

“All we ask is to be left alone by both the guerillas and soldiers and everyone else, too,” Cobaria told me. “All we want is to live in peace.”

On the eve of a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, last week—a summit that was intended to discuss, among other topics, the recent violations of Colombia’s airspace—Maduro defiantly declared his plan to purchase a dozen new fighter jets from Moscow.

And although the meeting between the two leaders seems to have resulted in a temporary agreement to combat smuggling on the border, no specific mention was made of the tens of thousands of displaced people. Immediately following the summit Maduro ordered the border with Colombia closed in yet another Venezuelan state.

Then things took another turn to the surreal.

Less than 24 hours after at least tentatively resolving a conflict with Colombia, reports began to emerge that Maduro was massing marine and ground forces along Venezuela’s eastern border with English-speaking Guyana.

Guyana’s President David Granger decried “extraordinary military deployments” along the country’s resource-rich Essequibo region, and described the buildup to the AP as “hostile and aggressive.”

Granger also retaliated by deploying Guyanese troops along the frontier, although it’s doubtful if the nation’s small army could withstand an all-out assault from its much larger neighbor.

For more than a century, Venezuela has sought to annex Essequibo (which accounts for about 40 percent of Guyana’s national territory), even going so far as to recently persuade Google Maps to give new, Spanish-language names to major streets and boulevards in the former British colony.

Tensions have increased since Exxon-Mobil’s discovery this year of major off-shore oil deposits in Essequibo. Since the Exxon-Mobil report was made public, Maduro’s blame-the-victim rhetoric against Guyana has been strikingly similar to the excuses he gave for the fracas with Colombia. He even accuses his tiny and impoverished neighbor of seeking to “attack” and “destroy” Venezuela, according to the Miami Herald.

Laying claim to Guyana’s newfound oil wealth would surely be a great boon for Maduro’s cash-strapped administration—but WOLA’s Isaacson believes the black gold is “just a pretext” for the sudden troop buildup on the border.

Isaacson says Maduro is scared witless about upcoming mid-term elections, scheduled for December 6, because Maduro's Chavista party is likely to take a shellacking at the polls—and his fear is the key to understanding the method behind his recent madness.

“You’ve got leaders of the opposition being locked up. You have almost no independent media anymore. You have a deeply unpopular president, but people generally are too afraid to protest—and everybody with their eye on these December 6 legislative elections,” Isaacson explains.

“So [Maduro] has been playing the nationalist card more, in order to rally the armed forces as well as the people behind him. And he’s been picking fights and spats with both neighbors,” explains Isaacson. “President Maduro has a lot to distract people from.”

Professor Carrasquero agrees with Isaacson’s assessment.

“Maduro’s government [is trying] to divert attention from those issues that really affect the quality of life for Venezuelans,” Carrasquero writes.

“There has been no democracy in Venezuela for the last several years,” the professor adds. “The ruling party makes decisions and other public authorities are called to do what is necessary to obey those decisions. In this context it is easy to hide violations of human rights.”

Isaacson also worries about additional rights violations in the run-up to the election, including “gerrymandering and using public money to buy votes,” as well as continued violence against the opposition.

When asked to imagine the future of Venezuela, Isaacson says he envisions “generalized poverty and a government that still—even though it has very few resources—is able to control everything.”

It seems clear that Maduro, the onetime bus driver, is willing to do whatever it takes to stay at the wheel, even if that means wrecking the state—and perhaps taking the rest of the region down with him.