September 02, 2014

Hugo Chavez gets his own prayer

IMG_0122In some quarters, Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez is treated like a saint.

Shortly after his death in March 2013, an informal shrine to him popped up by his hilltop grave. Now he's got his own prayer.

Ultimas Noticias reports that at the close of a socialist workshop on Monday attended by President Nicolas Maduro the delegates were led in the "Prayer of the Delegate," which is being referred to as the Chavista "Our Father."

Here's the opening line: "Our Chavez who art in heaven, the earth, the sea and in us, the delegates, hallowed be thy name."

Maduro could use some divine intervention. With plummeting approval ratings and a tanking economy he's announced a shakeup is in the works.  


January 27, 2014

Paperless Venezuela - News workers raise alarm about lack of newsprint

The inability of Venezuelans to score foreign currency through legal mechanisms has caused all sorts of problems. Toilet paper, flour, chicken, car parts and scores of other items have been difficult - if not impossible - to find as importers say they don't have the foreign cash they need to pay suppliers. Now it's the turn of newspapers. The National Syndicate of Newspaper Workers said Monday that 80 broadsheets and tabloids are facing newsprint shortages. Some have already gone under and more than a dozen others have scaled back production due to the lack of newsprint. On Monday, workers began hanging signs around Caracas like this one, which reads: "Without paper there's no newspapers / jobs." The government is struggling to get its arms around the problem. Last week, they devalued the bolivar and vowed to double the amount of dollars available at weekly auctions. Far too soon to tell if that will work. Here's more on slow-mo economic crisis.



January 21, 2014

TV Violence: Venezuela wants to end it, Colombia exports it to Afghanistan

PabloescobarAs Venezuela tries to crack down on violence by cracking down on violent TV, Colombia continues making a mint with its televised tales of crime and blood.

Still reeling from the murder of beauty queen Monica Spear early this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with broadcasters to get them to tone down the violence. It’s still not clear if the government will force them to do it, but in Venezuela’s restrictive media environment it wouldn’t be surprising.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s Caracol TV just announced that its hit series about the life of drug don Pablo Escobar will start airing in Afghanistan this month.

This from Caracol’s release: “Afghan audiences will witness the terrifying moments that changed not only the history of Colombia, but of the entire world and know the details that turned a common man into the lord of the drug trafficking business and one of the richest and most cruel criminals in the entire world.”

Read more about the PE series here.


January 20, 2014

Ecuador Journalist may seek U.S. asylum amid continued media pressure

UPDATE: Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was NOT a fan of our story about increased media pressure. According to this Prensa Latina post, he called The Miami Herald "the worst newspaper on the continent." 


Fernando Villavicencio, an Ecuadorian opposition adviser and journalist, says he may seek asylum in the U.S. after the government last week ratified an 18-month jail sentence and ordered him to pay part of a $140 million fine.

The government is pursuing him on libel charges after he suggested that the National Assembly open an investigation into the 2010 police riot that led to President Rafael Correa briefly being held hostage.

Correa has always maintained it was a coup attempt - his critics say he basically fanned the flames of a police labor dispute by going to the strike and then daring the cops to shoot him.

Additionally, Villavicencio's home was raided just after Christmas on separate charges. Here's a Miami Herald story about that: 

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Two days after Christmas, masked and armed police raided the home of Fernando Villavicencio in the predawn hours, hauling away a lifetime of data and documents.

Hours later, President Rafael Correa said Villavicencio — an opposition advisor who also writes about corruption and the oil industry — was suspected of hacking into the president’s email.

Ten days later, Ecuador’s state-run El Telégrafo newspaper wrote about a proposed online media outlet that is seeking funds in the United States, including with the National Endowment for Democracy — whose Cold War origins and “democracy building” efforts have made it a bogeyman in the Americas.

There was one problem with the El Telégrafo story: According to Martha Roldos, a former legislator and government critic who was pitching the idea, the only way the paper could have had access to the information was by hacking her email.

The twin “hacking” stories shed light on the small Andean nation that has been hounding the independent press even as it builds one of the most sophisticated state-run media apparatuses in the Americas, behind Venezuela and Cuba.

Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, has repeatedly called the media his “greatest enemy” and has leveled multimillion-dollar lawsuits against those who cross him. This week, as he celebrated his seventh year in power, there were no signs of a truce. Read the full story here.

October 15, 2013

Leaders of Dominican Rep. and Ecuador top new ranking, US and Uruguay at bottom

Mexico’s Consulta Mitofsky recently put out its annual ranking of regional leaders, which found Dominican Rep. President Danilo Medina on top and US President Barack Obama at the very bottom. The ranking is based on approval ratings in each country and they’re not strictly comparable, but let's not let the small print get in the way of a good list.

Two interesting points:

1)      Ecuador’s Rafael Correa remains hugely popular. (Compared to last year he fell one spot in the rankings but his approval numbers are actually up.)

2)      Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro debuts on the list at #8 after his late boss, Hugo Chávez, exited the rankings at #4 last year.

Check out the full report here.

Otherwise, here are the takeaway numbers:

#1 Dominican Republic  - Danilo Medina 88%

#2 Ecuador  - Rafael Correa 84% [He was ranked at #1 with 80% last year]

#3 Panama – Ricardo Martinelli 69%

#4 Nicaragua - Daniel Ortega 66%

#5 El Salvador – Mauricio Funes 64%

#6 Bolivia – Evo Morales 59%

#7 Mexico – Enrique Peña Nieto 56%

#8 Venezuela - Nicolás Maduro 48% [The late Hugo Chávez was #4 last year with 64% approval]

#9 Guatemala – Otto Perez 48%

#10 Uruguay – Jose Mujica 45%

#11 USA – Barack Obama 44%

October 10, 2013

Venezuela inflation just shy of hitting 50% for year


Annual inflation in Venezuela hit 49.4 percent in September, up from 18 percent a year ago, and basic goods became harder to find, the Central Bank reported Thursday.

The soaring consumer price index gives Venezuela the highest inflation in the hemisphere and one of the highest in the world.

In September alone, inflation spiked 4.4 percent, driven by agricultural goods, transportation, education expenses and a 19.3 percent hike in electricity prices, the government said.

The new figures are ammunition for an opposition that is trying to turn December’s municipal election into a referendum on the six-month administration of President Nicolás Maduro. Inflation is a pocketbook issue as it saps consumers’ purchasing power.

The Central Bank also reported that the “scarcity index,” which measures the availability of basic goods, hit 21.2 percent in September versus 13.6 percent a year ago. The bank said that excluding auto parts, corn oil and sunflower oil, the scarcity index would be at 15.3 percent.

Maduro has blamed rising prices and chronic shortages on hoarding, speculation and an “economic war” waged by his rivals. The government raised minimum wage 20 percent in May and 10 percent in September. Wages are going up an additional 10 percent next month. Earlier this week, Maduro asked parliament for the right to rule by decree for 12 months to the fight the economic battle and squash corruption. The National Assembly is expected to vote on the measure in coming weeks.

Henrique Capriles, the opposition governor of Miranda State, is asking his colleagues at the National Assembly to keep Maduro from seizing more power.

“Decree powers are not going to help bring down inflation, or raise salaries, or guarantee that hospitals are stocked,” he said Thursday. “It’s just a smokescreen to keep us dizzy.”

October 08, 2013

US and Venezuela: Anatomy of a diplomatic breakdown

When Venezuelan diplomat Calixto Ortega arrived in Washington this summer, he was on a difficult mission: to repair a bilateral relationship strained by decades of mistrust and heated rhetoric.

He appeared to make some headway. In June, his government tapped him to head talks to exchange ambassadors with the United States for the first time since 2010. There was reason to hope that the nations, with deep trade and cultural ties, might overcome some of their differences.

But last week, Ortega was headed to the airport — one of six U.S. and Venezuelan officials expelled in the latest round of diplomatic bloodletting that put hopes of a rapprochement on ice.

What happened during the months since Ortega’s arrival depends on what capital you’re in.

For the beleaguered administration of President Nicolás Maduro, the United States delivered a series of diplomatic insults and provocations at a time when both were tiptoeing into the relationship.

From shutdown-showdown Washington, Maduro’s decision to throw in the towel at the first tap on the jaw and then eject three diplomats on flimsy “sabotage” charges is a sign that he’s looking for scapegoats — not solutions — as his country spirals into an economic crisis.

Read the full story here

September 09, 2013

A tale of two malls sheds bleak light on Venezuela economic policy

Herald contributors Andrew Rosati and Ezra Fieser have written an excellent story about twin malls -- one built in Venezuela and the other in the Dominican Republic. It's a stark example of how economic policy really do make a difference. Take a read: 



CARACAS -- When Hugo Chávez ordered the government to take over a nearly finished shopping center in central Caracas in late 2008, he told a cheering crowd that the mall would be better used as a hospital, a school, or a university.

“No, no and no!” he said of the luxurious Sambil mall slated to open in the Candelaria neighborhood.

Before a single product was sold, the mall became one of the more than 1,000 businesses and properties Chávez expropriated during his 14 years as president.

Four and a half years later, the mall-that-wasn’t takes up an entire city block. It’s cordoned off from the public for most of the year. Since the seizure, its parking garage has seen service as a makeshift shelter for Venezuelans who have lost their homes to flooding. Designed to uplift a decaying neighborhood, its brick and granite façades are covered by a mosaic of murals marred with graffiti and campaign slogans.

Compare that to a $200-million sister mall in the Dominican Republic — built by the same Venezuelan developer, Sambil.

When it opened earlier this year off a busy highway in the capital of Santo Domingo, President Danilo Medina cut the ribbon. With a 16,000-square-foot indoor aquarium, a grocery store, movie theater and 325 shops, this Sambil mall is thriving.

The stark contrast between the two malls provides a window into the lasting effects of Chávez’s populist-driven relationship with Venezuela’s private sector.

Chávez, who died in March, antagonized private businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, spurring them to take their money elsewhere — leaving Venezuela struggling to attract investment to fix its crumbling infrastructure.

Not only has money failed to come in, but Barclays Capital, an international investment bank, estimates companies have taken some $150 billion out of the country since currency exchange controls were instituted a decade ago. In part, they were supposed to prevent capital flight. An average of $20 billion a year has been sent abroad over the past five years.

Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, is now picking up the pieces of the government’s broken relationship with the private sector.

Faced with a polarized country and stumbling economy, Maduro recently met in private with prominent business leaders, raising hopes he might be willing to work with those who Chávez alienated.

Economists said a fresh round of investment could help stock the shelves of stores that have sporadic shortages of products as basic as toilet paper, milk and sugar.

And without the investment, they say, the government is unlikely to stem rampant inflation, now at nearly 43 percent.

“There have been many meetings and announcements, but there has yet to be any substantial changes,” said Alejandro Arreaza, an economist with Barclays Capital.


Chávez’s policies drastically reduced poverty by providing housing, education and pensions to the poor. But in the process, he chased away private businesses, despite instituting measures to try to keep their investments from flowing abroad.

As the government’s relationship with private industry deteriorated, Chávez increasingly turned to expropriations as a means to achieve his goals. Many expropriations took place after a business refused to go along with Chávez’s policies, such as price regulations. 

Read the full story here

July 02, 2013

As Ecuador backtracks on Snowden asylum, Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba emerge as potential safe-havens

Stranded in a Moscow airport, NSA-leaker Edward Snowden is casting his asylum net wider as he hopes to elude capture by U.S. authorities on espionage charges.

With a number of countries backtracking on support , including Ecuador, Snowden’s options seemed to be dwindling, but might include Venezuela, Bolivia or Cuba.

On Tuesday, whistleblower website WikiLeaks said it had submitted asylum papers on Snowden’s behalf with at least 19 countries, in addition to Russia and Ecuador.

Among the Latin American destinations are Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But it’s still unclear how Snowden might get out of Russia. The United States has revoked his passport and Ecuador says that any documents he might have from that country are not valid.

The impasse raised speculation that Snowden, 30, might hitch a ride with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who is in Russia for a meeting with leaders of gas-exporting countries. Asked by reporters Tuesday if he would leave with the U.S. fugitive, Maduro avoided the question.

“We’re going to take back many accords that we’ve signed with Russia,” he said, according to the Venezuelan presidency, “that’s what we’re going to take back to Venezuela.”

Read more here

May 01, 2013

Nicolas Maduro says opposition instigated last night's legislative brawl, used "paralyzer" gas

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said opposition lawmakers were to blame for the bloody, chair-throwing brawl in the National Assembly Tuesday night. During a May Day speech he said the opposition had provoked the violence and had arrived at the Assembly with "paralyzers," which is a "gas" they intended "to throw in the face of the deputies."

He also said he would be showing videos to prove it. You can see some of the footage that's already out there here

And here's today's Miami Herald story about Tuesday's May Day marches.


Government supporters and opposition groups in Venezuela held dueling May Day marches Wednesday amid growing tensions over last month’s contested presidential election and one day after the legislature devolved into a bloody, chair-throwing brawl.

The rallies were, ostensibly, to celebrate international workers day, and counted on the support of rival unions and labor organizations. But they were also a show of political strength in a nation still at odds over the April 14 presidential vote.

President Nicolás Maduro and rival Henrique Capriles spearheaded the marches but tried to avoid confrontation by routing their supporters through different parts of Caracas.

In his ongoing battle to prove that the election was plagued by fraud, Capriles, 40, the governor of Miranda state, told throngs of supporters he would be handing over evidence of irregularities to the Supreme Court on Thursday. “We will make our case to every institution even though we don’t trust the state,” he said. “In any moment this [government] will fall, but its exit has to be constitutional. … This is a peaceful fight to defeat their lies.” Read the full story here.


jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

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