Venezuela Headlines #65 (Dec 8th- 16th, 2008) - 10M

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Boliviarian Revolution History:
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans flooded Caracas one week ago, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of President Hugo Chavez's election. In a nationally televised event, Chavez addressed his supporters from the presidential palace, and reviewed the history of Venezuela`s "Bolivarian Revolution." According to Chavez, the first period of the revolution began with the popular 1989 Caracazo revolt when thousands of Venezuelans protested neoliberal economic policies of then-president Carlos Andrés Perez. The second period began with his historic 1998 Presidential victory, which broke the decades-old power-sharing pact between the two main political parties. Chavez said the third stage will last from 2009 until 2019. He asked supporters to begin gathering signatures to support the constitutional amendment allowing his reelection. Two and a half million signatures of Venezuelan voters is sufficient to call a national referendum on a constitutional amendment, or a simple majority in the National Assembly, which will begin to debate the term limit amendment this week. The first discussion will take place in the National Assembly on December 18, with a second and final discussion set for January 5. If the National Assembly approves the amendment, the National Electoral Council will have 30 days to call a vote. Meanwhile, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, began collecting signatures in support of the amendment last week. The week of signature collection will end this Thursday, when the party will hand over the list of grassroots support for the proposal to the National Assembly, as it begins its discussion. Despite tough opposition to the amendment, many analysts expect another electoral victory for Chavez and his movement. If approved by the National Assembly, the nation-wide vote on the amendment is expected for late February, and it will be the 14th time Venezuelans have gone to the polls since Chavez was elected in 1998.

Next Steps:
With the regional elections over now and ten years since Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was first elected, this week, the president promoted the construction of participatory democratic communes as the main element in the next stage of the revolution. "The commune is the fundamental element of the third stage of socialism," Chavez said last week. He encouraged the governors, mayors, and regional legislators to strengthen the communes as a strategic step in the construction of socialist democracy and people's power. According to Article 16 of the failed constitutional reform proposed in 2007, a commune would be the basic organizational structure of the country, and a self-governing body made up of several communities, and organized as a form of participatory democracy. Each commune would be made up of several of the now-existing communal councils.

Corruption News:
The Attorney General is opening an investigation against Eduardo Manuitt, on allegations of corruption. The former governor of Guarico state will be summoned to court this week to be charged. Manuitt was originally elected in support of President Chavez, but later switched to the opposition. He officially broke relations with the president when he supported his daughter, Lenny Manuitt, in an unsuccessful campaign for governor against William Lara - the candidate of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. This is the second investigation to be opened against the governor, who is also accused of assaulting a mayor in his home state.

Fraud Charges:
Meanwhile, Venezuela's National Assembly Found ex-Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales responsible for fraud this week. PSUV Legislator Mario Isea, is president of the special commission of the National Assembly that had been investigating corruption charges against Rosales for some time. He announced last week that their investigation had found Rosales to be politically responsible in the case of irregularities in the Zulia state local lottery. The national assembly approved the commission's report on Thursday, December 11. Rosales is a major figure in Venezuela's opposition. He lost against Hugo Chavez in the 2006 presidential elections. He was governor of Zulia state from 2000 to 2008 and was recently elected mayor of Zulia state capital, Maracaibo. According to the legislature's special commission, Rosales was complicit when he re-contracted with a local lottery after this lottery was proven to have committed fraud. Isea has also accused him of various instances of corruption, including the channeling of public funds into private accounts, and hoarding land and capital in the name of front people. A range of other officials were also found politically responsible, including Zulia's comptroller, a state lawyer, the president of Alfa Lottery and Playtex, the members of the boards of the companies, and the president of Zulia's Income for Public Benefit Institute. Rosales called the decision a "political trial" which attempts to quote, "stain our image, intimidate the Venezuelan people and box in those who are opposed to this regime and to indefinite re-election." According to the Venezuelan constitution, in an investigation, the National Assembly can find a person "politically responsible" and then request that the attorney general's office take action.

Violence in Merida:
Post-election violence in Venezuela continued in the city of Mérida last Tuesday when the M13 anti-Chávez student group clashed with pro-Chavez protestors during the inauguration of Mérida’s new opposition mayor, former University of the Andes Rector Lester Rodríguez. At least one person was injured as pro-Chávez and opposition supporters hurled glass bottles, rocks, and tear gas bombs at each other, causing the inauguration event to be evacuated. The incident followed nearly two straight weeks of M13 demonstrations in opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to abolish presidential term limits, and to demand better student transportation, security, and cafeterias. The protests appear to be linked to the call for a national student rebellion against the amendment, made last week by opposition student leader Yon Goicoechea. Goicoechea recently received a half a million dollar reward from the DC-based Cato Institute. He will likely hold a post in the administration of the new opposition mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

Political News:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez replaced three of his cabinet ministers. He filled two of the posts with allies who lost their bids for governor and mayor in the local elections two weeks ago. Chávez named Jesse Chacón as the new minister of communication and information, Diosdado Cabello as the new infrastructure minister, and Luis Reyes Reyes as the new minister of the president’s office, which is similar to chief of staff.

Venezuela’s National Assembly approved the 2009 budget last Thursday. Next year's budget totals more than 160 billion bolivars. The legislature also approved 6 and a half billion dollars in additional loans and for servicing of debt. The budget was calculated on the basis of an estimated 60 dollars per barrel of oil as the average price for 2009. Government spending for its social programs will remain high next year, with nearly 10 billion dollars approved. Spending on health and education will also continue to be heavily funded, with the equivalent of over 25 percent of the country’s GDP. More than a billion and a half dollars will go to fund the increasingly-important “communal councils.” As usual, this will be distributed through the Law of Special Economic Allocations and the Intergovernmental Fund for Decentralization, FIDES. Ricardo Sanguino, president of the National Assembly's Permanent Finances Commission, said that Venezuela has all the necessary resources to confront the world financial crisis.

Agricultural News:
In its year-end report, the National Confederation of Farmers and Stockbreeders announced this week that food supply has stabilized nationwide and agricultural production has increased significantly in recent years. According to José Agustin Campos, president of the confederation, national cattle production now covers
70% of the meat demand. While over the last three years, milk production has doubled to six million liters a day. According to Venezuela´s Agriculture Minister, Elias Jaua, Venezuelan food crop production has increased more than 50 percent in the last decade. In recent years, food scarcity has been a concern often voiced by opposition sectors and the mainstream press. For now, at least, the problem seems to have faded. Campos highlighted public policies, along with the private sector confidence, as stimulating factors in the current growth.

International News:
Former Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt met with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in Caracas last week, to thank him for his successful efforts to free hostages held by rebel groups in Colombia. She also stressed her confidence that Chávez never attempted to aid the FARC. Betancourt highlighted the process led by Chavez in 2007-2008, which resulted in the unilateral release of six hostages held by the FARC guerrillas. Betancourt's meeting with Chavez is the most recent stop in a tour that included meetings with heads of state in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. She referred to Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa as a “brother” in the struggle for peace, despite his disagreements with Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe over the handling of the armed conflict. The former presidential candidate, who spent six years in captivity, was freed along with more than a dozen others in a theatrical operation by Colombia’s army last June.

On his first official visit as President of Cuba, Raúl Castro arrived to Caracas over the week as a symbolic demonstration of the importance that the Cuban government places on its relations with Venezuela. Castro’s visit finalized the 9th meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Joint Commission. Organized in 2-dozen working groups, Cubans and Venezuelans reviewed the progress of joint projects established for the last three years. The Commission approved more than a 170 new projects to be completed in 2009 for a sum of $2 billion. Cooperation between the two countries goes back to the beginning of the Hugo Chavez administration. They signed an Integral Cooperation Agreement in 2000 through which Venezuela provides Cuba with 100,000 barrels of oil daily in exchange for services provided by Cuban professionals. Since then, more than 30,000 Cuban doctors, 1400 agricultural technicians, and 6,000 athletic trainers have worked in Venezuela.
According to the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Oil, 3 and a half billion dollars worth of joint projects were undertaken between 2006 and 2008.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday that relations between Venezuela and the United States can only improve under an Obama presidency. However, the Venezuelan President add quote, "we must be cautious because Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact." He said he is ready to collaborate on issues such as drug trafficking, terrorism, and energy, and spoke positively of Obama´s recent cabinet appointments. On Saturday, Chavez called on Obama to extradite terror suspect Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted in connection to the bombing of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 civilians in 1976. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison while awaiting trial and appeared in the United States years later, where officials have thus far declined Venezuela's extradition requests. President-elect Obama has yet to issue a statement on the matter.

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