Friday, August 18, 2017

Venezuela's New Faux-Representational Assembly!

from Yahoo News
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's new legislative superbody on Friday gave itself the power to pass laws, superseding the opposition-led congress and fueling criticism by government adversaries that socialist President Nicolas Maduro is consolidating a dictatorship.

In practice, the move does little to change the existing situation. The Socialist-dominated Supreme Court has stripped power from the congress and shot down nearly every law it has approved since it was taken over by the opposition in 2016.

But the decision suggests the constituent assembly, elected in July in a vote boycotted by the opposition, is more interested in limiting the opposition's influence than carrying out its official task of rewriting the nation's constitution.

Delcy Rodriguez, a Maduro ally and president of the constituent assembly, insisted the move did not imply a dissolution of the congress.

"Those lazy bums have to work. What we are doing is telling them 'Gentlemen, we are not going to let you take a holiday,'" Rodriguez said in a reference to opposition legislators.

The assembly had invited leaders of the existing congress to join the session. Congressional leaders did not attend, insisting it was fraudulently created and usurped their powers.

"(Congress) only obeys the constitution and the people. We do not recognize the constituent assembly, much less subordinate ourselves to it," Freddy Guevara, an opposition politician and vice president of the congress, wrote on Twitter.

Maduro pushed for the creation of the constituent assembly on promises it would bring peace to the country after months of violent street protests that have killed more than 125 people.

Critics say the constituent assembly was created to extend the rule of the Socialists, who face anger across the country over chronic food shortages, triple-digit inflation and a severe recession.

Protests have slowed since the July 30 election, partly because opposition leaders are in talks to present candidates for the gubernatorial elections expected in October. Many opposition supporters are also tired and demoralized.

Governments around the world have slammed the creation of the constituent assembly, with many accusing Maduro of seeking to ignore the will of Venezuelans who want a change of government.

The United States has slapped sanctions on top Socialist Party officials, accusing them, among other things, of weakening democracy and violating human rights. Washington has said it will consider sanctions against anyone who participates in the constituent assembly.

Things Look Bleak for Maduro...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Airlines Abandoning Venezuela

from Yahoo News
Airlines are continuing to pull out of Venezuela, and this time it’s not just about trapped cash but a whole series of grievances including staff held up at gun point, luggage theft, poor runway maintenance and low quality jet fuel.

United Airlines, Avianca and Delta Air Lines have either stopped flying to Venezuela or said they would leave the country, while three others canceled flights on specific days as the nation descends into chaos. Colombia’s pilots’ association says its members who have flown to Venezuela have had to deal with contaminated fuel and hours-long delays as the National Guard pulls suitcases off flights to loot them. This week, videos showed an apparent assassination of a man at the check-in desk of a local airline at the airport.

“Everything that’s part of the airport’s infrastructure started to get degraded,” Julian Pinzon, the head of security and technical issues at Colombian pilot association Acdac, said. “We started seeing problems in the runway, problems in the aircraft taxiway, problems with the airport’s electricity supply, in the fuel distribution trucks.”

The current round of carrier defections comes after routes had stabilized from the previous exodus triggered by the government’s halt of dollar payments, and leaves Venezuelans increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. A flight to Miami in coach class can cost about $1,000, in a country where the monthly minimum wage is about $20 at the black market rate.

The nation’s social and economic implosion has turned tasks as simple as busing flight crew to hotels into logistical challenges. Staff who once stayed overnight in Caracas, which is about a 45-minute drive away, took to sleeping in hotels near the airport to avoid the bandit-ridden highway. Even then, they’d get attacked, minutes outside the airport perimeter. Some carriers took to flying crew to spend the night in neighboring countries.

Avianca hired bodyguards after shots were fired during a robbery of a bus carrying its crew. Although no one was injured, it wasn’t enough to calm nerves, and the overnight route was eventually canceled, according to Acdac.

Traffic in and out of Caracas dropped 40 percent in 2014 after cash piled up from local sales that couldn’t be repatriated – there’s still $3.8 billion that never made it out, according to international airline association IATA. The airlines that stuck it out were able to pay off local costs and fuel with bolivars – until Venezuela changed that rule, requiring payment in dollars.

Some carriers are refusing to throw in the towel. American Airlines, which still flies to Caracas and Maracaibo, said in a reply to emailed questions that it would not operate at any airport that didn’t meet the highest standards safety and security. Panama’s Copa Airlines, which flies to Caracas and two other Venezuelan cities, said it’s been able to overcome operational challenges and continues to monitor conditions in the country.

Venezuela’s aviation authority Inac said it didn’t have an official spokesperson who could talk about the sector. The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization said that when it last visited Venezuela four years ago, the country delivered “exemplary results.”

Flights have found Venezuelan jet fuel to be contaminated due to poor conditions in distribution trucks and storage tanks, according to the Acdac. Planes that fill their tanks with the fuel sometimes require lengthy maintenance, the association said.

“You don’t have the guarantee anymore that the fuel they’re putting on board isn’t contaminated,” Pinzon, the head of safety and technical issues at Acdac, said. “The engines that are getting that gas aren’t going to stop, but the internal system will start to degrade and the filters will start getting blocked up, or damaged.”

The official reasons for leaving have been varied. United said its Venezuela route wasn’t meeting financial expectations, while Avianca cited operational issues without providing too many details. Aerolineas Argentinas said it wants to continue flying to Caracas, but first needs reassurance that it would be viable and secure. After dropping off passengers from its its weekly Buenos Aires to Caracas flight, the airline takes its crew on to Bogota, rather than have them spend the night in Caracas. They return to Venezuela for the return leg the following morning.

Complaints about operational issues to Venezuelan authorities have been falling on deaf ears, according to Peter Cerda, IATA’s regional vice president for the Americas.

“It’s quite unfortunate, the airlines have done everything possible to maintain Venezuela connected to the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s more of a challenge every day.”

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

New Assembly Flexes Muscle

from the AP
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The new constitutional assembly assumed even more power in Venezuela by declaring itself as the superior body to all other governmental institutions, including the opposition-controlled congress.

That decree came Tuesday just hours after the assembly delegates took control of a legislative chamber and put up pictures of the late President Hugo Chavez, who installed Venezuela's socialist system.

Delcy Rodriguez, the head of the ruling socialist party and leader of the body, said the unanimously approved decree prohibits lawmakers in congress from taking any action that would interfere with laws passed by the newly installed constitutional assembly.

"We are not threatening anyone," said Aristobulo Isturiz, the constitutional assembly's first vice president. "We are looking for ways to coexist."

Leaders of congress, which previously voted not to recognize any of the new super-body's decrees, said lawmakers would try to meet in the gold-domed legislative palace Wednesday, but there were questions whether security officers guarding the building would let them in.

The opposition to President Nicolas Maduro also faced another fight Wednesday before the government-stacked Supreme Court, which scheduled a hearing on charges against a Caracas-area opposition mayor. The judges convicted another mayor Tuesday for failing to move against protesters during four months of political unrest.

In calling the July 30 election for the constitutional assembly, Maduro said a new constitution would help resolve the nation's political standoff, but opposition leaders view it is a power grab and the president's allies have said they will go after his opponents. Before its decree declaring itself all-powerful, the assembly ousted Venezuela's outspoken chief prosecutor, established a "truth commission" expected to target Maduro's foes and pledged "support and solidarity" with the unpopular president.

The latest surge of protests began in early April in reaction to a quickly rescinded attempt by the government-supporting Supreme Court to strip the National Assembly of its powers. But the unrest ballooned into a widespread movement fed by anger over Venezuela's triple-digest inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and high crime.

Opposition lawmakers said security forces led by Rodriguez broke into the congress building late Monday and seized control of an unused, ceremonial chamber almost identical to the one where lawmakers meet.

"This government invades the spaces that it is not capable of legitimately winning," Stalin Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker, wrote on Twitter, alluding to the opposition's overwhelming victory in the 2015 congressional elections.

Before the assembly met Tuesday, the pro-government Supreme Court sentenced a Caracas-area mayor to 15 months in prison for not following an order to remove barricades set up during anti-government demonstrations.

Ramon Muchacho was the fourth opposition mayor ordered arrested by the high court the past two weeks. His whereabouts were not known, but he denounced the ruling on Twitter.

The constitutional assembly's meeting Tuesday came amid mounting criticism from foreign governments that have refused to recognize the new body.

The foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru to discuss how to force Maduro to back down. The ministers issued a statement after the meeting condemning the body and reiterating previous calls for the parties in Venezuela to negotiate on ending the political crisis.

Meanwhile, leaders from the Bolivarian Alliance, a leftist coalition of 11 Latin American nations, met in Caracas and declared the creation of the constitutional assembly a "sovereign act" aimed at helping Venezuela overcome its difficulties.

"We reiterate the call for a constructive and respectful dialogue," the alliance said in a statement read after the meeting.

Since the disputed election, security forces have stepped up their presence. A U.N. human rights commissioner report issued Tuesday warned of "widespread and systematic use" of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators.

Only a few dozen demonstrators heeded the opposition's call to set up traffic-snarling roadblocks in Caracas on Tuesday to show opposition to the new assembly, underlining the fear and resignation among that has weakened turnout for street protests that once drew hundreds of thousands. At least 124 people have been killed and hundreds injured or detained during the protests.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Purge of Prosecutor's Office Complete!

Finally, Maduro can get back to locking up his political opponents legally!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

Venezuela's currency crumbles at dizzying speed

from France 24
CARACAS (AFP) -

Venezuela's money, the bolivar, is sinking faster and faster under an intensifying political and economic crisis that has left citizens destitute and increasingly desperate.

Its depreciation accelerated this week, after a disputed vote electing an all-powerful "Constituent Assembly" filled with allies of President Nicolas Maduro, which the opposition and dozens of countries have called illegitimate.

On Thursday alone, the bolivar slumped nearly 15 percent on the black market, to be worth 17,000 to one US dollar.

In a year, the currency has lost 94 percent.

The decline has been dizzying -- yet largely ignored by the government, which uses an official rate fixed weekly that is currently 2,870 to the dollar.
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Ordinary Venezuelans, however, refer only to the black market rate they have access to, which they call the "dolar negro," or "black dollar."

"Every time the black dollar goes up, you're poorer," resignedly said Juan Zabala, an executive in a reinsurance business in Caracas.

- Salaries decimated -

His salary is 800,000 bolivares per month. On Thursday, that was worth $47 at the parallel rate. A year ago, it was $200.

The inexorable dive of the money was one of the most-discussed signs of the "uncertainty" created by the appointment of the Constituent Assembly, which starts work Friday.

As a result, those Venezuelans who are able to are hoarding dollars.

"People are protecting the little they have left," an economics expert, Asdrubal Oliveros of the Ecoanalitica firm, told AFP.

But Zabala -- who is considered comparatively well-off -- and other Venezuelans struggling with their evaporating money said they now spent all they earned on food. A kilo (two pounds) of rice, for instance, cost 17,000 bolivares.

The crisis biting into Venezuela since 2014 came from a slide in the global prices for oil -- exports of which account for 96 percent of its revenues.

The government has sought to monopolize dollars in the country through strict currency controls that have been in place for the past 14 years. Access to them have become restricted for the private sector, with the consequence that food, medicines and basic items -- all imported -- have become scarce.

According to the International Monetary Fund, inflation in Venezuela is expected to soar above 700 percent this year.

In June, Maduro tried to clamp down on the black market trade in dollars through auctions of greenbacks at the weekly fixed rate, known as Dicom. There is also another official rate, of 10 bolivars per dollar, reserved for food and medicine imports.

"Things are going up in price faster than salaries," noted Zabala, who spends 10 percent of his income on diabetes treatment, when he can.

- 'No limit' -

Maduro has vowed that a new constitution the Constituent Assembly is tasked with writing will wean Venezuela off its oil dependency and restart industry, which is operating at only 30 percent of capacity.

But the president, who links the "black dollar" with an "economic war" allegedly waged by the opposition in collaboration with the US, has not given details on what would be implemented.

On Thursday, Maduro promised "speculators" setting their prices in line with "the terrorist criminal dollar in Miami" would go to jail.

For the past four months, Maduro has been the target of protests which have been forcefully confronted by security units, resulting in a toll of more than 125 deaths.

The opposition says the new Constituent Assembly is an effort to create a "dictatorship" along the lines of Communist Cuba.

Against that backdrop of tensions, "there is no limit on how far the black dollar can go," according to Ecoanalitica.

But a director of the firm, Henkel Garcia said he believed the current black market rate "didn't make sense" and he noted that in the past currency declines weren't linear.

Oliveros said increased printing of bolivares by the government was partly the reason for the black dollar's rise.

"When you inject bolivares into the market, that means that companies, individuals go looking for dollars, which are scarce," he said, estimating that the shortfall of dollars this year was some $11 billion.

The horizon is darkened further with big debt repayments Venezuela has to make, for instance $3.4 billion the state oil company PDVSA has to reimburse in October. That debt is denominated in dollars.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cubazuela, The Long Fight Begins

from the WSJ
Forget all you’ve heard about dialogue in Venezuela between the regime and the opposition. Hungry, hurting Venezuelans are done talking. The country is in the early stages of civil war. Sunday’s Cuban-managed electoral power play was the latest provocation.

In my column two weeks ago, “How Cuba Runs Venezuela,” I failed to mention Havana’s 2005 takeover of the Venezuelan office that issues national identity cards and passports. It was a Castro-intelligence coup, carried out with then-President Hugo Chávez’s permission. The move handed Havana the national Rolodex necessary to spy on Venezuelans and surreptitiously colonize the country. Islamic extremists received Venezuelan passports to give them false cover when crossing borders. Regime supporters got the papers they need to vote under more than one identity.

This is something to keep in mind when Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro reports the results of Sunday’s election for representatives to draft a new constitution. In polls, some 80% of Venezuelans oppose Mr. Maduro’s “constituent assembly.” But the opposition boycotted Sunday’s election because they know Cuba is running things, that voter rolls are corrupted, and that there is no transparency in the operation of electronic voting machines.

Opposition leaders in Caracas are still trying to use peaceful means to unseat Mr. Maduro. Last week they orchestrated an effective 48-hour national strike and on Friday another day of demonstrations.

But grass-roots faith and hope in a peaceful solution has been lost. One symptom of this desperation is the mass exodus under way. On Tuesday the Panam Post reported that “more than 26,000 people crossed the border into Colombia Monday, July 26, according to the National Director of Migration in [the Colombian city of] Cúcuta.”

Venezuelan applications for asylum in the U.S. were up 160% last year, making Venezuelans No. 1 among asylum seekers to the U.S. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were 27,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers world-wide in 2016. By mid-July this year there were already 50,000.

Last week the National Guard arrested and badly beat violinist Wuilly Arteaga, who has become a national symbol of peace. Many of those fleeing say they fear that after Sunday the regime crackdown will intensify. Some of those staying behind have already begun to launch counteroffensives. This provides the regime an excuse for increasing repression, yet there is a growing sense that violence is the only remaining option.

The regime has the armored vehicles, the high-powered rifles, and the SWAT gear. But the population has the numbers and the anger. It also may increasingly have support from dissident government forces.

Consider what happened in the municipality of Mario Briceño Iragorry in the state of Aragua earlier this month, when the pro-government mayor and the regime’s paramilitary, known as colectivos, began looting shops that were closed during a one-day national strike.

Eyewitness testimonies sent to me by a source in Caracas describe how townspeople tried to defend the shops. The mayor brought in paramilitary reinforcements. But the town was saved when the judicial police arrived from the state capital of Maracay. According to the Venezuelan daily El Nacional, they arrested the mayor, who was armed, and “many” colectivos.

The judicial police, who number around 12,000 and conduct criminal investigations, are Venezuela’s largest national police agency. They are also responsible for protecting Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. Ms. Ortega broke with the regime in March when the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court tried to dissolve the opposition-controlled legislature. She is an outspoken critic of Mr. Maduro’s constituent assembly. She has not been arrested, probably because the regime doesn’t want to confront the judicial police.

There are also dissident members of the military but their possible role in recovering democracy seems difficult. The leadership is pro-regime and though there are rumors of grumbling among the lower ranks, organizing a coup requires communication. The security and intelligence apparatus installed by Cuba makes that challenging.

But a citizens’ revolt, led by young people whose families are starving, is already under way. Last week after 24-year-old Ender Caldera died from injuries sustained in a demonstration in Timotes, Merida, his friends exacted revenge by intercepting an armored National Guard truck on a mountain road and setting it afire. Numerous other National Guard vehicles have been torched in Caracas.

The state of Barinas, where the late Hugo Chávez was born, was once a regime stronghold. Today it is an antigovernment pressure-cooker where dissidents burn debris in the streets and confront the National Guard. It is the state with the highest number of protest fatalities in the country since the street protests began in April.

Mr. Maduro tried Sunday to put a “democratic” imprimatur on his power grab. But by the afternoon there were at least six dead in clashes with the regime. On the streets of Venezuela, it is now fight or flight.