In a written interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal and summarized in English by the Associated Press, President Obama had some stern words for President Hugo Chavez, commenting on Venezuela’s ties with Iran, as well as government actions that “threatened basic democratic values and failed to contribute to security in the region.”
Reuters has more on the back and forth and gives context for the history of Obama-Chavez relations. The presidents shook hands at the Summit of the Americas in 2009, but beyond the symbolic gesture of goodwill there has been little easing of the tension between the two countries. In May 2011, the US imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state oil company for trading some $50 million worth of industry equipment with Iran. The sanction was largely a symbolic move, as it did not limit Venezuela oil sales to the US.
2010 saw a diplomatic row after Chavez said Venezuela would not accept the US-appointed ambassador, Larry Palmer, in the diplomatic post. Palmer caused controversy in Venezuela for stating that the Venezuelan military had “low morale” during his confirmation hearing in the US Senate. Chavez responded by saying he would send Palmer back to the US if he tried to enter Venezuela. The US then pulled the nomination, and since then Caracas has been without a diplomat. In December 2010, the US revoked the Venezuelan ambassador’s visa in a clear reaction to the Palmer affair.
Beyond the usual back-and-forth between the US and Venezuela, the AP notes that with both countries facing presidential elections next year, it may be in Obama’s interest to take a tougher stance towards leftist governments in Latin America, while Chavez may play US criticism to his advantage. The El Universal interview could yet be the first of several spats waiting to be played out in 2012.
- The Mercosur summit is set for the next two days, and one of the topics most likely to be discussed is the proposed full membership of states outside the Southern Cone, including Ecuador and Venezuela. .A brief summary of the top issues to be discussed at the conference can be found at Americas Quarterly. Chavez, believed to be still recovering from cancer surgery and chemotherapy, is set to travel to Uruguay for the summit, his first official foreign trip in over six months, reports Reuters.
- Late Monday evening, Lori Berenson boarded a plane from Peru to the US, after she was temporarily blocked from leaving the country last Friday. Berenson is a US citizen who served 15 years in Peruvian prison on charges that she aided a terrorist group. As noted in yesterday’s post, it is unclear whether Berenson was stopped from leaving the country because of a bureaucratic mix-up, or whether authorities deliberately tried to prevent her from traveling.
- Reuters reports on further reform to Cuba’s agricultural policy, which allows farmers to lease out even larger parcels of land. This follows a series of economic reforms passed in recent months, including a new property law which allows citizens to buy and sell houses at their own prices. Meanwhile, in what may be interpreted as a less reform-minded move, the Raul Castro government declared three days of official mourning for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, alongside the governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela. In another critical story, Cuba’s unofficial human rights commission told EFE there were 388 detentions last year for political reasons.
- AS/COA offers its take on the bill passed last week in Argentina which limits how much rural property foreign companies can hold. At least two other members of Mercosur, Brazil and Uruguay, have either passed or are considering a similar law. As AS/COA points out, the legislation is mostly motivated by concerns over food security.
- Puerto Rico officially experienced its most violent year in history, after the total number of homicides hit 1,100 the past weekend, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
- Among the several year-end round ups now appearing in US media this week, Christian Science Monitor lists the top ten immigration stories of the past year.
- Mexico City is closing its largest open air landfill, reports the BBC.
- The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a new survey that finds cocaine use is down in the US.