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What the Venezuelan Constitution Does, and Does Not, Say Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Wednesday, 09 January 2013 18:28

The Venezuelan government announced Tuesday that President Hugo Chávez will miss his swearing in on Thursday, January 10, when his new term is set to begin. The Supreme Court ruled today that his swearing in tomorrow would not be necessary for “continuity” of his administration, and that he could be sworn in before the Court at a later date.

Returning from a meeting with Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, Brazilian Foreign Minister Marco Aurelio Garcia said Tuesday that Brazil regards as constitutional the extension of time needed to swear in Chávez as president for his new term, saying the current debate can be solved through "constitutional means,” as Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper reported. Several heads of state or other high level officials from Latin American governments will be present at events at the presidential palace in Caracas tomorrow.

Despite some confusion and deliberate distortions in the media and among Venezuela observers, the Venezuelan constitution (English PDF version here; Spanish version here) is clear on procedure regarding what is allowed if the president-elect is unable to be sworn in in Caracas.

For example, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R – FL), who has infamously called for Fidel Castro’s assassination in the past, issued a hyperbolic statement accusing Chávez of attempting to subvert the constitution:

The delay of his swearing-in is yet another example of the trampling of the constitution by this despot. The Venezuelan constitution states that the leader of Venezuela needs to take the oath of office on January 10 in front of the National Assembly or the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice.

But Article 231 states, in part, “If for any supervening reason, the person elected President of the Republic cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, he shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice.” No deadline is mentioned, contrary to what Ros-Lehtinen claims. Ros-Lehtinen also stated:

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“A Natural Experiment”: William K. Black Compares the Latin American Left to the “Washington Consensus” Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Monday, 07 January 2013 16:37

William K. Black, former deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement and now Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City takes on Alvaro Vargas Llosa and other “neoliberal” pundits in a long post today at Huffington Post. Noting how Vargas Llosa, P.J. O’Rourke and others have condemned the left-leaning heads of Latin American states as “idiots” and “stupid,” Black examines the track record of the neoliberal economic model versus the alternatives being pursued by countries such as Ecuador:

We have run what economists refer to as a "natural experiment." At the same time that Latin Americans were overwhelmingly rejecting key neo-liberal aspects of the Washington Consensus the Eurozone and the United States moved rapidly in the opposite direction by adopting ever more extreme neo-liberal dogmas. These dogmas created what criminologists refer to as a criminogenic environment -- an environment where the incentives are so perverse that they can produce epidemics of "control fraud." These fraud epidemics directly drove the financial crises in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Iceland and indirectly triggered crises by causing global systemic shocks. AVL does not wish to discuss the predation by the world's most elite bankers.

The loss of the young (through emigration), employment, output, income, and wealth and the growth of poverty and inequality that resulted from the most extreme neo-liberal policies are staggering. In the U.S., over 10 million Americans lost their jobs or could not obtain jobs that would have been produced by a healthy economy. Spanish unemployment is nearly 5 million. The crisis is so great that it is now common for Irish and Italian citizens to emigrate as soon as they earn their university degrees. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission reported that the loss of U.S. wealth in the household sector alone was estimated at over $12 trillion -- a trillion is a thousand billion.

And concluding:

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Pundits Who Had Predicted a “Tight” Presidential Election in Venezuela Now Predict Doom and Gloom Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 04 January 2013 16:45

As we have previously noted, many pundits and much of the international media predicted a close presidential election in Venezuela in October, if not an actual victory by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. But in the end, the vote was not close, as we had predicted it would not be in a paper we released on October 4. Chávez won by 11 percentage points – just a little over the 10.7 point victory that poll averages had suggested. As we have also noted, the conventional wisdom on Venezuela in the U.S. media and the economics profession (including the IMF) has repeatedly predicted sharply more negative outcomes for the Venezuelan economy than have materialized.

Now, as speculation runs rampant over the state of Hugo Chávez’s health, many of the same voices that predicted a close election in October are again predicting doom and gloom for Venezuela.

For example, in an op-ed just before the October election, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter wrote that “the election appears to be very tight.” In the New York Times’ Room for Debate today, Shifter details a list of problems that he says Chávez’s successor will need to tackle, “gradually” and tactfully in order to avoid some kind of catastrophe:

By now, it is easy to recite the litany of problems facing Venezuela.

At the top of the list are a huge fiscal deficit (around 20 percent) and high inflation (just under 18 percent), decaying infrastructure, mismanaged petroleum sector, shortages of basic goods, periodic blackouts and widespread crime and insecurity. All of these derive in some measure from severe institutional weaknesses, a product of Hugo Chávez’s one-man, 14-year rule. Whether his successor comes from his camp or from the opposition, reform and improved governance will be essential.

In a quickly-dated October 5 op-ed titled “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant,” blogger Francisco Toro wrote, “Mr. Chávez is facing a tight re-election race against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 40-year-old progressive state governor who extols the virtues of the Brazilian model,” and a little over a week before that wrote “Two weeks out, though, two of Venezuela's three best-regarded pollsters show him in a statistical dead-heat with the president. By crafting a message to appeal to a truly nationwide audience, he's given himself a real fighting chance to pull off a stunning upset on Oct. 7th.”

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It’s Official: Iran’s Presence in the Region a Threat to U.S., according to Congress and Obama Print
Written by Alex Main   
Wednesday, 02 January 2013 15:46

En Español

While Congress struggled to approve legislation to avert the much-hyped “fiscal cliff”, a bill addressing “Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere” quietly and smoothly swept through both houses before the end of the legislative session.  The bill, which requires the State Department to develop a strategy to address the Iranian regional “threat”, was signed into law by President Obama on December 28th.

If you haven’t heard of the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” (H.R. 3783), that may be because you aren’t a faithful reader of the neoconservative Commentary Magazine, which urged President Obama to sign the bill; or of the web page of the Heritage Foundation.  Nor did you receive the press release of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) that applauded the bill’s passage and noted that it would help “turn back Iranian attempts to establish bases, subvert the economic relationships between the US and Latin America, and the establishment of covert abilities to promote terrorism in countries close to our own US borders.”  The ZOA is an organization with links to Israel’s far right and counts among its members rightwing billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moskowitz, best known for their hardline pro-settlement and anti-Iran positions and their generous donations to Republican super Pacs during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Indeed, though the bill was approved nearly unanimously in both chambers, only far right organizations appear to have openly supported it. 

There is little doubt that Iran has sought to increase its diplomatic and economic presence in Latin America in recent years, as have China and Russia.  The Iranian government has opened up new embassies in the region and President Ahmadinejad has gone on several trips to Latin America.  But H.R. 3783, in its “findings”, alleges that Iran is involved in far more nefarious activities in the region. 

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Battle Over Secretary of Defense Nomination May Affect Latin America Policy, Too Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Saturday, 22 December 2012 13:08

There is an epic battle going on, mostly in the shadows, over President Obama’s reported intention to appoint former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  Robert Naiman describes some of the stakes here:  

“On Afghanistan, the AP notes- ("Pentagon front-runner Hagel has strong Obama ties, likely favors rapid Afghanistan withdrawal "):

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is a contrarian Republican moderate and decorated Vietnam combat veteran who is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. [...] Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that "the American people want out" of the war. …

"On Iran, the AP noted that ‘Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.’”

"On the Pentagon budget, a Washington Post editorial noted that in September 2011 Hagel called for cuts to the Pentagon budget. .."

And on the battle within the Beltway:

“The outcome of this battle is likely to be determined soon. If Obama nominates Hagel, easy Senate confirmation is expected. But it's possible that in the absence of a sufficiently broad and vigorous response, the neocon Swift Boaters could kick up enough dust to convince some of the Obama political people that, even though they could win the fight easily, it's not worth the fight, and life would be much easier politically if they would just appease the right and appoint someone the right won't object to, and move on to other things."

"That outcome would be a shame, because far more than any other likely Obama nominee, Hagel represents the foreign policy that the majority of Americans voted for in 2008 and 2012: less war, more diplomacy.”

And now New York Congressman Elliot Engel, former Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and the new ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has publicly confronted his party’s President to oppose a Hagel nomination. 

What about Latin America?  It seems that there are objections from the right here too:

On Thursday that chorus was joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is reportedly concerned about Hagel’s past support for ending the US boycott on Cuba’s communist regime. Rubio’s spokesman Alex Conant told the Washington Free Beacon that ‘promoting democracy in Latin America is a priority for Senator Rubio, and he’s put holds on other administration nominees over the issue. If President Obama were to nominate Senator Hagel, for a cabinet position, I’m sure we would have questions about Cuba positions.

So, it looks like people who care about the Western Hemisphere have a stake in this fight, too.  President Obama didn’t change policy in this hemisphere from that of the Bush Administration. But he paid a political price for that, as his administration was isolated from almost all of Latin America, e.g., for helping the coup government in Honduras legitimize itself.  In addition to the Cuba embargo, there is the  so-called “drug war” and other issues where the Obama administration may feel pressure to take some steps in a positive direction, and it would be good to have a Secretary of Defense who is at least more open-minded than a lot of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.  And of course, it would send a terrible message to the country and the world to see President Obama cave once again to the neocon right, as if elections here don’t really matter. 

 
Miguel Facusse is Tragically Misunderstood Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 21 December 2012 14:00

The Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson conducted a rare interview with Miguel Facussé Barjum, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Honduras, and also believed to be behind the killings of dozens of campesinos in the Aguan Valley, where Facussé has extensive land holdings. He has been the subject of much recent scrutiny, as Wilkinson notes, especially following the assassination of attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who worked on behalf campesino organizations in the Aguan. Wilkinson describes some of the allegations and criticism leveled at Facussé from members of the U.S. Congress and human rights organizations:

In October, shortly before he lost reelection, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) took the unusual step of singling out Facusse in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Berman demanded a major overhaul of U.S. policy toward Honduras, including suspension of aid to human rights abusers. He repeated Trejo's accusation, calling for an investigation of Facussé.

"It is breathtaking that Facusse has been so untouchable," said a House of Representatives staffer with knowledge of the issue, who spoke anonymously in keeping with Washington protocol.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, in filings with the International Criminal Court, alleges that Facusse may have committed "crimes against humanity" in the killings of Trejo and several peasant farmers.

As we have previously noted, Facussé has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces. A 2011 human rights report from the FoodFirst Information and Action Network, the International Federation for Human Rights and other groups details a number of killings, kidnappings, torture, forced evictions, assaults, death threats and other human rights violations that victims, witnesses and others attribute to Facussé’s guards. In May this year, Reporters Without Borders declared Facussé to be a “predator” of press freedom. Facussé’s response has sometimes been to threaten to sue for defamation. As he explains in the LA Times article, “He said he considered suing Berman but was advised by friends that legal action would be a waste of time.”

Perhaps seeing the limits to suing for defamation when the allegations are supported by evidence, Facussé, it appears, wanted to sit down with Wilkinson in order to set the record straight. He explains that, while yes, his airplane was "was used to illegally carry the foreign minister out of the country against her will" during the 2009 coup d’etat; and yes, drug planes have used his property to traffic cocaine; and yes, he normally keeps a pistol on his desk; and yes, he “keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him,” and yes, he was aware of the plans for the 2009 coup in advance – he’s misunderstood. One has to appreciate the tremendous pathos as Facussé laments, "My name is mud all over the world," he said. "I'm the bad guy in the world."

And

As for the allegations of involvement in the lawyer's killing?

"I probably had reasons to kill him," he said, "but I'm not a killer."

 
Sunday’s Election Indicates Power Shift is Unlikely in Venezuela Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Monday, 17 December 2012 18:22

The overwhelming victory of Chávez’s party, the PSUV, in yesterday’s elections for state governors is another indication that the widespread prognostications of gloom and doom ahead for both chavismo and for Venezuela may once again be off the mark.  The PSUV won 20 of 23 states, increasing their total from 15 to 20 governorships.  They were able to do this without Chávez being able to campaign, which is interesting not only because he is an important political figure and campaigner, but also because by a law which predated Chávez, most TV stations are required to carry the president’s speeches (these broadcasts are called cadenas).  Since the government TV stations have only about 6 percent of the television audience, this was an important factor that helped in the October 7 presidential elections – without the cadenas the media would have been stacked against him, since most print media and radio are also privately owned and to varying degrees against the government.  This election, like the October 7 presidential election, also showed the superior organization of the president’s party, which in most of the 20 states that they won, they won by large margins.

It thus appears that if Chávez is unable to complete his term, the most likely scenario would be that his endorsed candidate, Nicolás Maduro, would win the presidency in the special election that is required to take place 30 days after a presidential resignation.  Polls taken before the last election showed Maduro trailing by 6 points behind the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski; but that is before the recent endorsement from Chávez, and of course the boost that Chávez would give him with any further appeals to the electorate.  Capriles avoided disaster by winning the governor’s race in Miranda, but it was not by a huge margin (50 - 46), especially considering the massive media exposure he had during his presidential campaign. 

Of course, many things are possible, but the wishful scenarios that one sees in much of the media, “that a deeply polarized and de-institutionalized Venezuela will be both turbulent and unstable for the foreseeable future,” is looking increasingly unlikely.  For a relevant comparison, Lula da Silva finished his second term in 2010, and had relatively little trouble getting his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff – who had never before held elective office – elected president.  The major media, and the anti-Chávez commentators that have a near monopoly on discussion of Venezuela, tend to exaggerate the role of Chávez’s personal charisma in Venezuelan politics, and tend to underestimate the importance of the unprecedented improvement in living standards – real (inflation-adjusted) income, employment, poverty reduction, and increased access to health care, public pensions, and education.  These gains have been at least as big in Venezuela under Chávez as they were under Lula in Brazil, and will likely determine the outcome of any special election – if there is one -- as they did the election of October 7. 

 
Monroe Doctrine 2012: U.S. Congress Wants Iran to Stay Out of "Our Little Region Over Here” Print
Written by Dan Beeton   
Thursday, 13 December 2012 16:02

Yesterday the Senate passed a slightly amended version of a House bill designed to limit Iran’s dealings and interests in the Western Hemisphere. The bill, H.R.3783, the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012” calls for a plan that would, among other things, “address any efforts by foreign persons, entities, and governments in the region to assist Iran in evading United States and international sanctions” and

support United States efforts to designate persons and entities in the Western Hemisphere for proliferation activities and terrorist activities relating to Iran, including affiliates of the IRGC, its Qods Force, and Hezbollah, under applicable law including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; and

 (D) to address the vital national security interests of the United States in ensuring energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere that are free from the influence of any foreign government that would attempt to manipulate or disrupt global energy markets.

The historic trajectory out of which the legislation emerges is clear in the first two sections under the “Findings” (background):

Congress finds the following:

(1) The United States has vital political, economic, and security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

(2) Iran is pursuing cooperation with Latin American countries by signing economic and security agreements in order to create a network of diplomatic and economic relationships to lessen the blow of international sanctions and oppose Western attempts to constrict its ambitions.

In other words, the members of Congress who have passed this legislation want Iran to stay out of “our little region over here” as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson referred to the Western Hemisphere in 1945. Such policies go back to the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Western Hemisphere to be exclusively the United States’ sphere of influence. Apparently the U.S. Congress did not get the memo that even the Council on Foreign Relations considers the Monroe Doctrine to be dead- an anachronistic framework for an age in which Latin America has found a new independence from the United States and increasingly seeks out business and political arrangements with countries such as China and India.

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Washington Post Predicts Disaster for Venezuela, So What if They Turn Out Wrong for the 19th Time? Print
Written by Mark Weisbrot   
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 18:16

The Washington Post editorial board has long been one of the most shrill voices in the U.S. against the left governments of Latin America, and of course most apoplectic about Venezuela.  I have often suspected that they write these editorials for the right-wing press in Latin America, which often picks them up, and especially since most of the Post’s readers could care less about Venezuela or the other governments that they hate so much, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, etc.   This is a nice favor for their friends down South, because there are still many people who don’t know that the Post’s editorial board has been taken over by neocons, and so “Fox on 15th Street” still has a reputation in some quarters as a “liberal” voice.

As it has been doing without success for more than a decade, the Board in its latest editorial forecasts economic doom in the near future:

To win the election, the government spent wildly, running up a budget deficit of 20 percent of gross domestic product.  The next president consequently will be forced to devalue the currency, giving a boost to inflation that is already in double digits and worsening already-severe shortages of consumer goods.

According to the October estimate of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – no fan of Chávez – the government budget deficit for 2012 is forecast at 7.4 percent of GDP.  The Post doesn't give a source for it's 20 percent number, but a recent Wall Street Journal article attributed the number to Barclays.  This is the big investment bank that embarrassed itself and cost some of its investors a lot of money by telling them just two days before Venezuela’s October 7 election than “an opposition victory looks likely.”  Chavez won by 11 percentage points, which was just about the average of pre-election polling.

Also it is not clear why a budget deficit, as the Post argues, would force the government to devalue the currency.  After all, the government is mostly borrowing and spending in domestic currency, not dollars.  As for inflation, it is true that it has picked up in the two months since the election (October and November), but inflation over the past year has been 17.9 percent, as compared with 26.1 percent for 2011 and 28.2 percent for 2010.  So the trend over the past two years has been downward, despite the fact that the economy was recovering from a recession.

The Post Editorial Board also argues that if Chávez were to become incapacitated, it “could tip Venezuela, one of the largest U.S. oil suppliers, toward a prolonged period of turmoil or even violence.”  It’s not clear why this would be the case; Chávez has already asked his followers to vote for his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, if he can no longer serve – indicating his desire to follow the constitution, which would mandate an election within 30 days of his leaving office. It’s possible that it could take more than 30 days to get things prepared, depending on events – but there’s no indication of potential turmoil or violence. There were similar predictions in much of the press regarding the October presidential election, but instead there was a record voter turnout, a clean election, and a peaceful acceptance of the results.

 
'Times' Fails to Include Expert Opinion in Discussing Argentina Media Law Print
Written by Jake Johnston   
Monday, 03 December 2012 16:37

In a New York Times article over the weekend, Simon Romero and Emily Schmall report on the “battle” between the Argentine government and Grupo Clarín, the country’s largest media conglomerate. The “battle” centers on the implementation of a 2009 media law that would require Grupo Clarín to divest some of its TV, radio and cable broadcast licenses. In 2009, their licenses amounted to 73 percent of the nationwide total, a level that would not be allowed in the United States.

The reporters give readers the opinions of the two sides: the CEO of Clarín contends that “[t]his is about more than Clarín; this is about democracy,” while government officials respond that the law is about guaranteeing a “plurality of voices.”

Yet the Times fails to include the voice of Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of the Expression for the UN, who has described the Argentina media law as “a model for the continent and other regions of the world,” adding that "the principles of media diversity and pluralism are fundamental" in freedom of expression. 

As is generally the case when center-left governments challenge the media, there is reason to believe that the Argentina law is not about an attack on freedom of expression, but rather about democratizing a media landscape dominated by heavily-monopolized media conglomerates that are often opposed to the forces of change under way in the country. The Special Rapporteur agrees; and the Times’ readers would have benefited from hearing his opinion as well. 

 
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