Monday, January 9, 2012

Chavez Clashes with US, Appointing ‘Kingpin’ as Minister and Welcoming Ahmadinejad

The US and Venezuela have been embroiled in a series of clashes that could worsen relations, as President Hugo Chavez hardens his stance against Washington while he moves to shore up power in the run-up to the October 2012 general elections.

On Friday, Chavez announced the appointment as defense minister of an army general the US government accuses of trafficking drugs, in what the New York Times describes as “a bombshell with international implications.”

General Henry Rangel Silva was added to the Treasury’s “kingpin list” in 2008, on the grounds that he helped Colombian rebel group the FARC to traffic drugs, and had pushed the Venezuelan government to cooperate more closely with the guerrilla force.

The highly provocative move is part of a personnel shake-up in the highest circles of Venezuelan politics. On Thursday Diosdado Cabello, one of the president’s biggest allies, was elected as president of the country’s National Assembly. As noted in Friday’s post, the changes may reflect Chavez's decision to replace ideological hardliners in his government with officials who have close ties to the military and to business. Rangel stirred controversy last year when he declared the military’s “absolute loyalty” to Chavez, hinting that they might not accept a change of government.

One legal scholar told the NYT that the loyalty of the military would be very important to Chavez going into the elections:
If the October election is close or if the opposition disputes the results, she said, the military wing of Mr. Chavez’s party would be “absolutely indispensable.”
As well as strengthening ties to the military, Rangel’s appointment could be a move by the Chavez administration to gain popularity by baiting the US. Bilateral relations suffered another blow on Sunday when the US announced that it was expelling Livia Acosta Noguera, Venezuela’s consulate general in Miami. The State Department did not give a reason for the expulsion, but it comes less than a month after a documentary by Univision which linked Acosta to a planned cyber attack, allegedly proposed by officials from Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Chavez had more provocative words in his newly restarted TV broadcast “Alo Presidente,” declaring that the country would consider leaving the World Bank’s forum for resolving investment disputes after being ordered to pay compensation to Exxon Mobil.

He fired further shots against Washington on the program as he welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Caracas, on the first stop of his Latin America tour. The Venezuelan leader ridiculed US warnings about Latin nations forming close ties with Iran, declaring of the US government that:
They're not going to be able to dominate this world. Forget about it Obama, forget about it.
The Iranian leader’s tour has been interpreted by analysts as an attempt to shore up support and economic ties amid growing conflict and sanctions over the country’s nuclear program. He has scheduled visits to Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador, with some reports that he will attend Otto Perez’s inauguration in Guatemala. US House foreign relations committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the trip a “tour of tyrants.” However, as the Washington Post points out,
Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba have small economies with little to offer Tehran as it searches for a tangible way to ease the impact of American sanctions. And Venezuela imports mainly from its neighbors while exporting oil.
More on Ahmadinejad’s trip from the Miami HeraldBusiness Week, and the NYT.

News Briefs

  • As Haiti approaches the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake which hit on January 12, 2010, various media outlets look at the progress, or lack of it, that has been made in rebuilding the country. The Miami Herald sees some signs of hope, but criticizes the relief effort, arguing that “disorganized, donor-driven projects, scattered development and lack of investments in creating jobs have many questioning whether the money was smartly spent.” The Associated Press notes that, with $2.38 billion spent, few new buildings have been constructed, and 550,000 people still live in “temporary” camps, with delays exacerbated by the failure of the current president to appoint a cabinet, and of the previous government to employ a clear housing strategy.
  • Many Haitians simply left the country after the quake, and the NYT documents the lives of some of the 4,000 who ended up in Brazil, finding jobs in its construction boom. Many are kept in border towns and given aid, before receiving humanitarian visas, unlike would-be migrants from many other countries, who are expelled. “All I want is work,” one Haitian told the newspaper, “and Brazil, thank God, has jobs for us.”
    See the NYT’s photo essay.
  • The LA Times blog reports on the Colombian government’s efforts to crack down on the Urabeños drug gang, after killing its leader on new year’s eve. The gang ordered businesses in several major cities to shut down for 48 hours as retaliation, and, according to reports in the Colombian media, have now offered a reward of $1,000 for those who kill police officers, mirroring long-ago tactics by Pablo Escobar. 
  • The NYT features a story from the Texas Tribune on how Mexico’s presidential elections could impact on Texas businesses. Trade between Mexico and the districts of  Laredo, El Paso and Houston has risen in the last year, despite escalating drug violence and the US economic problems, according to the report.
  • The LA Times has a report on the presidential drive of frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto, noting that a series of blunders could knock his campaign off course before the July vote. The governor of Mexico State failed to name any book he had read, when asked, and could not give the price of tortillas, raising questions about his skills as a politician.
  • Also in the LA Times is a look at the plight of individuals who have been deported from the US after living there for many years -- sometimes nearly their entire life -- and are desperate to get back to the country they consider their home. The story follows reports in the media in recent months that “repeat crossers,” who are determined to rejoin families in the US, make up an increasing percentage of those trying to cross the border, who  are not deterred by repeated failures to make it.
  • The curious story of a Texan teenager, a US citizen, who was deported to Colombia despite having no connections to the country has raised further concerns about the rise in deportations under Obama’s government. A 15-year-old girl arrived home Friday after being deported to Colombia in May, speaking no Spanish, after she apparently told immigration officials that she was Colombian.
  • Lori Berenson, a US citizen who was convicted of collaborating with Peruvian terrorists and spent 15 years in prison in that country, has returned to Peru after a holiday visit to her family in New York. She was granted leave to make the trip, her first out of the country since being arrested in 1995, on condition that she return by January 11 to serve out her remaining three years on parole. The BBC reports that many in Peru had predicted that she would not come back. While she was away, Peru’s Congress passed a law that prevents convicted terrorists on parole from leaving the country, which commentators say means that she will not be able to travel again until her sentence is fully served.
  • The WSJ and NYT both have pieces on the case of Jesus Zambada Niebla, son of one of the top leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, who is currently facing trial in Chicago. He has claimed that the  FBI, DEA, and the Department of Justice had a deal to let the organization traffic drugs in exchange for information. New details have now emerged of what the deal allegedly involved, with Mexican government documents listing operations carried out in 2007, including the trafficking of a shipment of cocaine from Ecuador to Madrid via Dallas, with the alleged collusion of US agents.
  • Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has been told that she never suffered from cancer, despite being diagnosed with the disease in December. Her thyroid gland was removed in an operation Wednesday. Some politicians have called on the government to explain how the operation was allowed to take place.

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