Friday, July 1, 2011

Chavez Confirms Cancer Rumors

After almost three weeks of laying low in Cuba and avoiding the international media, Hugo Chavez officially confirmed rumors that he is battling cancer in a statement broadcast over Venezuelan television last night. Besides the operation to treat his “pelvic abscess,” the Bolivarian socialist revealed that he had undergone another, hitherto secret operation to remove a cancerous tumor. However, he claimed that doctors were successfully able to remove the tumor entirely and said he had faith that he would make a full recovery.

In his unusually brief 15-minute speech (the text and video of which are available at El Universal and TeleSur, respectively), the frail-looking Chavez came off as somewhat despondent, and compared his emotional state to his experience during the failed 2002 coup d’├ętat against him. Like then, he claimed to feel like he was “at the bottom of another abyss” which threatened to swallow him up.

Chavez has reason to be troubled. While he recovers in Cuba, an armed standoff between prisoners and security forces continues to shake the country and power shortages have had a serious impact on the Venezuelan economy. More recently, 90% of the doctors working in state hospitals in the country have announced an indefinite strike to protest low wages, as El Universal reports.

Meanwhile, reports differ on what exactly this new development will mean for Chavez’s political future. Reuters suggests that an extended absence on his part could stir up infighting amongst the PSUV -- none of whom have anything close to Chavez's popularity -- and could potentially cause the opposition to press for an early election. However, AP says the opposition has been fairly respectful of Chavez’s condition thus far, and has not yet released an official reaction to the news.

Theoretically, if Chavez’s condition were to worsen to the point that he could no longer serve, then the president would be forced to abide by Venezuelan law regarding the selection of a successor. As Venezuelan blogger Juan Cristobal Nagel points out, the constitution requires him to put Vice President Elias Jaua in charge of filling out the rest of his term, which ends in January 2013. And while the Constitution allows Chavez to change vice president at will, he could not name his brother Adan Chavez to the post, as it expressly forbids the President from naming a relative as Vice President.

Ultimately, it seems likely that this announcement will at least be greeted with embarrassment on the part of officials, many of whom (like National Assembly leader Fernando Soto Rojas) expressly denied that Chavez had cancer in the past. Whether ordinary Venezuelans are going to be upset about this, or whether it will be overlooked may depend on just how much Chavez is able to milk public sympathy.

News Briefs

·         Although talks with the inmates of the El Rodeo I and II prisons have seemingly gone nowhere, it isn’t for lack of trying. The Guardian profiles the ex-gangster turned evangelical preacher who the government chose to work as mediator in the conflict. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government is reportedly investigating the news network Globovision for its coverage of the prison riots. According to Pedro Maldonado, director of the state telecommunications agency, Globovision transmitted “messages of panic” by suggesting that Venezuelan armed forces were massacring prisoners.  As such, Bloomberg says the network could be fined as much as 10% of their earnings on the coverage.

·         After the State Department released its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report this week, WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isaacson plotted out the report’s three-tier evaluation system on a highly informative map. In doing so, he highlights the potentially politicized nature of the report, pointing out that the only two countries which “are not fully complying with the minimum standards and not making significant efforts to do so” are Cuba and Venezuela, while the only other country in the hemisphere besides the U.S. and Canada to get “top marks” for its anti-human trafficking work is Colombia.

·         The Washington Post reports that the Colombia FTA hit another road bump yesterday when all eleven Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted a hearing in which the lawmakers were expected to reach an agreement on the bill.  Apparently the Republican Senators are still angry about the inclusion of trade adjustment assistance (TAA) for workers who lose jobs to the FTA. As Americas Quarterly’s Christopher Sabatini argues, however, the $1 billion pricetag for the TAA programs are little more than a drop in the bucket compared to the $13 billion in increased exports that the trade deal is expected to generate for the U.S. economy.

·         After all the negative press sparked by the ATF’s failed “Operation Fast and Furious,” two Congressional Democrats are attempting to take on the gun lobby and argue for tougher gun laws in the American Southwest. The L.A. Times has more on this long-shot effort.

·         Three Mexican states --Coahuila, Nayarit and Mexico State-- are hosting gubernatorial elections this Sunday. As EFE and The Economist report, each of them is expected to be won by Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) candidates. The L.A. Times has more on the Mexico State race, where the PRI candidate, Eruviel Avila is being accused of campaign-spending abuses.

·         Mexican officials have arrested an alleged member of the Zetas who has apparently confessed to having participated in several of the killings outside of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, where . This is the second arrest to be linked with the mass graves this week. As InSight Crime reports, testimony from the first capture seems to indicate that the victims were targeted by the Zetas as an act of retribution against the local wing of the Gulf Cartel.

·         Plaza Publica has written an interesting profile on Guatemala’s somewhat controversial but determined Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. Since taking office, she has conducted the biggest purge of the country’s Ministerio Publico in recent history.

·         According to El Faro, El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes has outright accused previous governments in the country of sponsoring organized crime within the state security institutions. Speaking at a police academy graduation ceremony, Funes cited one instance in which Mexico’s Zetas tried to co-opt elements of an elite unit of police by allegedly offering them somewhere around $ 5,000 per month. He also claimed that the majority of homicides in the country are actually due to his government’s crackdowns on extortion, which he says has forced gangs to start fighting each other over drug trafficking territory.

·         The Economist blog says the Peruvian government’s cancellation of plans for a Canadian silver mine after recent protests in the southern Peruvian state of Puno “has thrown doubt over the future of extractive industries” in the country, potentially spooking investors.

·         Bolivia's government officially informed the United Nations that it is withdrawing from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended by the 1972 Protocol) on Thursday. However, the country has announced it will rejoin the convention on January 1, 2012, which is the same day that the withdrawal would enter into effect. According to Bolivia’s Los Tiempos, the country’s UN ambassador explained it with the following analogy: "Bolivia isn't abandoning anything. It's a divorce to get remarried, without putting up with the mother-in-law."

·         Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research said on Thursday that nearly 268 square kilometers of protected rain forest were cut down illegally during May, up from 110 square kilometers during the same  month last year. Mercopress reports that the trend is increasing as farmers become more confident that the government will pass an  amnesty for illegal logging.

·         The U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico says authorities have broken up the island’s largest heroin distribution ring after a raid on a notorious slum.