AS/COA Online | Capriles Wins Venezuelan Primary to Become Chávez's Challenger

Henrique Capriles Radonski won Venezuela’s opposition primary on February 12, making him the top contender in the race against President Hugo Chávez. Capriles, governor of the state of Miranda, pulled in 1.8 million of the 2.9 million votes cast. He will serve as the nominee of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), an alliance of opposition parties formed to more effectively compete with Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. A former legislator, Capriles faced four other candidates but faced his greatest competition from Pablo Pérez, governor of Zulia state. Another candidate, Leopoldo López, dropped out of the race on January 24 and put his support behind the frontrunner, giving Capriles a last-minute boost. In hopes of overcoming past electoral setbacks, MUD candidates signed a September 2011 pact agreeing to back the primary winner to avoid possible splintering of the opposition vote in the October 7 election. The MUD also agreed to a unified platform last month, pledging to combat the country’s violent crime problem, engage in democratic reconstruction, and pursue a sustainable economic model. AS/COA’s Rachel Glickhouse and Guillermo Zubillaga note in an election overview that the February 12 vote “test[s] the momentum of support for the opposition coalition before the general election.” Can Capriles, backed by a unified opposition, compete with the loquacious, long-governing Chávez?

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AS/COA Online - Venezuelan Opposition to Back one Candidate against Chávez

There may be a year to go before Venezuelans head to the ballot box for the next presidential vote, but the election is already kicking into high gear. On Monday, opposition leaders in the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) signed a deal agreeing to back one candidate to face current President Hugo Chávez on October 7, 2012. “We the signatories of this agreement unanimously support the candidate who is elected in a February 12 primary as the single candidate of the Democratic Unity coalition,” reads the pact. The deal was signed within days of Leopoldo López—banned in 2008 from competing for Caracas’ mayoralty seat—announcing his presidential bid. Should the Supreme Court allow him to run, López would compete against a number of candidates for the primary seat, including polling favorite and Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles. The primary winner is slated to compete against the cancer-stricken Chávez, whose approval ratings hover around 50 percent, as he seeks a third six-year term.
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AS/COA Online - Venezuela's Vote: Opposition Breaks Pro-Chávez Supermajority

In the early morning hours of September 27, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced, via Twitter, “a solid victory” in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Indeed, with all 167 seats in the National Assembly up for grabs, early results showed Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) nabbing at least 95 seats. Yet, as The Economist blogged: “Seldom has an election victory tasted so bitterly of defeat.” The opposition coalition’s Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) ended the chavistas’ two-thirds majority by picking up at least 61 seats. Moreover, the opposition parties won roughly half of the popular vote. “The Venezuelan people have spoken. May the voice of the people be heard,” said the MUD’s representative Ramón Guillermo Aveledo as the results came in.
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AS/COA Online | Beijing Pledges $20 Billion to Venezuela

Beijing and Caracas underscored their burgeoning ties over the weekend with $20 billion in Chinese financing, largely for Venezuela’s energy sector. The series of accords signed includes plans for a joint venture for exploration in the oil-rich Orinoco belt and secures Venezuelan oil for energy-hungry China. “This is a larger scope, a super heavy fund. China needs energy security and we’re here to provide them with all the oil they need,” said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in televised remarks. “China is going to give financing to Venezuela, to the Venezuelan people, to the Bolivarian Revolution…over the long-term and in large volume.” The funds could help salve the Andean country’s battered economy and infrastructure. 

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AS/COA Online - Exclusive Interview: General Fraser on Security in the Americas

“Our efforts are always focused on supporting the government, wherever the crisis happens.”

General Douglas M. Fraser, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about supporting relief efforts in Chile and Haiti, the fight against illicit trafficking, Iran’s growing ties with Latin America, and weapons modernization in the Andes.

AS/COA: The Americas obviously experienced two massive earthquakes since the beginning of the year, first in Haiti and now in Chile. In each case, what are the top challenges in terms of operational responses from a U.S. perspective?

Gen. Fraser: I think there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that every situation is different and every situation is unique, so you have to understand the situation as it exists. And getting accurate information early—and comprehensive information—is always a challenge. Our efforts are always focused on supporting the government, wherever the crisis happens. So we look to support the government and work at what they need, when they say they need it. That’s very much what we see happening in Chile.

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AS/COA Online - Venezuela Widens Takeover of Small Banks

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez marked the eleventh anniversary of his first electoral victory by announcing the resignation of a close advisor in connection with a corruption scandal. The Venezuelan government took over seven small private banks in recent weeks, setting off financial jitters as observers wondered whether Caracas would nationalize the country’s banking sector. The banks mismanaged public funds, says the government, which issued dozens of warrants for and arrested eight bankers linked to the scandal. Arné Chacón—brother of science and technology minister, Jesse Chacón—was among those arrested, prompting the minister’s resignation.

Chávez revealed the news in episode 345 of his weekly address Alo Presidente. The leader also announced the takeover and reopening of several of the banks through a new state entity called Banco Bicentario. Despite the seizure of multiple institutions, the seven private banks accounted for as little as 8 percent of total deposits in Venezuela. Still, the institutions appear to have had close ties to the Chávez government. The four banks (Banco Provivienda, Banco Canarias, Banco Confederado, and Bolivar Banco) initially seized in November represented a quarter of the government’s funds in the banking system.  Ricardo Fernández Barrueco, among the banks’ directors and those arrested, allegedly made his wealth through projects that supplied food to the government’s subsidized supermarkets.

Last week, Chávez said he had “no problem” nationalizing banks that misappropriated state funds and failed to extend credit to the poor. Days later, the government seized three more banks—Baninvest, Banco Real, and Central Banco. The Venezuelan bolivar, which skidded in the wake of the interventions, recovered Monday as worries eased about short-term nationalization of the banking sector. But The Wall Street Journal reports that Chávez’s anti-corruption drive may win points with the Venezuelan public and distract from woes that range from power outages to a recession. On top of that, a group of Venezuelan college students held a 17-day hunger strike that ended December 8. The protesters sought OAS attention for their complaints of government abuses, including arrests of opposition leaders.

Former Central Bank Governor Domingo Felipe Maza Zavala said in an interview over the weekend that the current banking crisis may not run as deep as did the country’s 1994 economic crisis. Still, he said the takeovers could spell rising inflation, supply shortages, and additional rationing of electricity and water services in the coming year.

AS/COA Online | Interview: Patrick Esteruelas on Venezuela's Oil-Based Economy

“As much as a victory would buy Chávez a new lease on life, a defeat could end up being the most costly policy mistake he’s made in over ten years in office.”

In an AS/COA interview, Patrick Esteruelas, a specialist in the Andean region with Eurasia Group’s Latin America practice, about the effects of the dropping price of oil on Venezuela’s economy.  “Venezuela can count on a sizeable cushion of reserves and foreign exchange liquid assets to help it ride the current economic down cycle,” he tells AS/COA Online's Managing Editor Carin Zissis. “But not for very long.” Esteruelas also talks about the reasons behind President Hugo Chávez's decision to hold a referendum on the elimination of presidential term limits in February.

AS/COA Online: Speculation has mounted that, with the sharp drop in the price of oil, Venezuela’s economy could be under serious threat. Yet some argue that country’s economy stands well-girded because of the high oil prices in recent years. What do you make of this debate and what are the economic outcomes Venezuela faces as a result of the oil price drop?

Esteruelas: I would say that Venezuela can count on a sizeable cushion of reserves and foreign exchange liquid assets to help it ride the current economic down cycle. But not for very long. By all accounts, Venezuela is destroying assets much more quickly than it’s been building them, given today’s oil prices. The country has somewhere around $60 billion in foreign exchange liquid assets, which include just shy of $30 billion in foreign exchange reserves, just shy of $20 billion in the foreign exchange development fund, and then the rest equitably split along the discretionary government funds and cash dollars held by PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela].

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AS/COA Online | Interview: Leopoldo López on Venezuela's Political Alternative

“We are an alternative in terms of presenting solutions for poverty and for public safety, which are the main issues that Venezuelans need to have addressed by their government.”

Leopoldo López Mendoza, mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas, was a frontrunner in the race for the mayoralty of the Venezuelan capital until he, along with hundreds of other opposition candidates, was banned from running in November municipal elections. In an exclusive interview with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis, López talks about the questionable legality of the ban and the threat it poses to democracy in Venezuela. López, who won 81 percent of votes when he ran for reelection for his current post in 2004, says inequality and public security serve as Venezuela’s main challenges.

AS/COA: Venezuela’s electoral council barred hundreds of mostly opposition candidates from running in the November municipal election on the basis of unproven corruption charges. You’ve been prohibited from running for the mayoral post of Caracas. Given the current block against your candidacy, what are your short-term political goals?

López: The first goal is to help promote the candidates that can run and to promote possible victories in municipalities and governorships in this upcoming elections.
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AS/COA Online - Interview: Student Activist Yon Goicoechea on Venezuela's Political Future

“I believe that to have modern countries, we also have to renew our political structures.”

Yon Goicoechea, Venezuelan law student, activist, and founder of the Futuro Presente Foundation spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about his country's student activist movement, widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the defeat of a December 2007 constitutional referendum. Goicoechea was recently awarded the 2008 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty from the Cato Institute.“There are hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans with a firm commitment to making good policy practices and that’s why I believe that in 10 years we will have renewed institutions in Venezuela and new opportunities for improvement,” says Goicoechea.

AS/COA: How did Venezuela’s student movement begin?

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AS/COA Online - Entrevista: Activista Estudiantil Yon Goicoechea sobre el Futuro Político Venezolano

“Yo creo que para tener países modernos también hace falta renovar nuestras estructuras políticas.”

Yon Goicoechea, estudiante venezolano de derecho, activista y fundador de la fundación Futuro Presente habló con la editora de AS/COA Online Carin Zissis sobre el movimiento estudiantil, ampliamente acreditado como pieza importante en la derrota del referendo constucional de diciembre del 2007. Goicoechea fue recientemente galardonado con el premio Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty del Cato Institute. “Hay cientos de miles de jóvenes en Venezuela comprometidos en hacer política de la buena y por eso creo que en 10 años vamos a tener nuevas instituciones en el país y nuevas oportunidades para hacer las cosas mejor,” dice Goicoechea.

AS/COA: ¿Como empezó el movimiento estudiantil en Venezuela?

Read More | Timeline: Venezuela's Chavez Era

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999 on a populist platform. But as he moves to enact his “socialist revolution,” critics say the country increasingly resembles an authoritarian state. This interactive timeline offers a visual account of modern Venezuelan politics and Chavez’s rise to power.

Served as photo editor.

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Manhattan South - Sexed Up Funk: Los Amigos Dock Their Intergalactic Love Boat

"Shake your booty!" shouts Los Amigos Invisibles' lead singer Julio Briceño over the band's tight rhythms. "You're going to forget that it's raining out there."

It's a rainy, cold Monday night in the West Village, and Los Amigos have taken the S.O.B.'s stage with plaid pants on and shirt collars unbuttoned. While the Venezuelan sextet time-travels through a universe of disco, funk, and Latin styles, conjuring images of an intergalactic Love Boat -- just imagine George Clinton on board, playing maracas -- the blend of beats on songs like "Ponerte en Cuatro" keeps the crowd dancing.

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