Monday, April 9, 2012

Rumors Over Chavez's Cancer Raise Spectre of Succession

With more conflicting reports on the health of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, and the president himself seeming to suggest that his condition is more severe than he has previously admitted, questions about who will succeed him are becoming more pressing.

Chavez arrived in Havana yesterday for another round of radiation therapy, following his public pleas last week to Christ not to "take me yet.”

On Friday there were reports in Brazilian media that Chavez was going to a Sao Paulo hospital for emergency treatment. When contacted, doctors at the facility said they had not been informed of this, according to the WSJ. Nelson Bocaranda, a Venezuelan columnist who has made a speciality of disseminating information and rumors on the president’s health, had also reported the story independently. Bocaranda later said that Chavez had changed his mind about the plan at the last minute, because he was concerned that going to Brazil instead of Cuba would embarrass Fidel Castro. Bocaranda also claims that Chavez had a secret meeting with the Pope while the two men were both in Cuba in March, according to a WSJ piece on the journalist.

Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter told the WSJ that, as the newspaper phrases it;

the apparent worsening of Mr. Chavez's illness could push political actors in Venezuela, especially the armed forces, to step up efforts to manage a difficult transition [as] the president's health deteriorates.
While uncertainty over Chavez’s state of health raises tensions in Venezuela, Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva gave an ambiguous reassurance about the army’s stance on the upcoming presidential elections, reports the WSJ. "We are going to recognize whoever wins the October 7 elections. We're not just going to recognize whoever says they won," he declared. This follows the close Chavez ally’s statement in 2010, while commander of the armed forces, that the institution would not accept a change in government and was wedded to the Chavez project.

Meanwhile, Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the WSJ says that if the president dies without picking a successor it could provoke a free-for-all in Venezuela, with a struggle between armed civilian factions and the military. She also warns that Chavez’s ideology might be cemented rather than weakened, as “his early demise could make chavismo a near religion in Venezuela.”

Colombia’s La Silla Vacia also has a piece on Bocaranda, saying that he is considered the best-informed person in Venezuela, with information that no other journalist has access to. The website notes Bocaranda’s reports on the Colombian government’s alleged moves to make peace with the FARC rebels. It says he reported last month that FARC leaders “Alfonso Cano” (now dead) and “Timochenko” had flown from Venezuela to Cuba last year for talks with Fidel Castro, while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ trip to the island this year was made to ask Chavez and the Castro brothers for help with negotiations. Bogota denies such negotiations are taking place.

News Briefs

  • Ahead of this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Guatemala’s President Otto Perez has made his most explicit comments yet on the drug legalization issue, via a comment piece for the Guardian. He argues that, despite all the blows struck against drug traffickers over the years, the trade continues undaunted, and that it cannot be eradicated but should be regulated, like the markets in cigarettes and alcohol. Perez says that drug consumption should be considered a public health issue, not a criminal justice problem.

    "Our proposal, as the Guatemalan government, is to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalised but within certain limits and conditions."

    Perez has said that he plans to raise the legalization issue at the upcoming summit, and notes in his Guardian piece that Colombia’s Santos and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla have said that are open to dialogue -- “Those of us who have experience on security matters know what we are talking about.”
    The Miami Herald argues in an editorial that Obama can’t afford to ignore the arguments for legalization and that he should use the summit to show his engagement with Latin America; “The United States must send a message to its allies in the region that they are not alone in fighting the drug scourge.”
  • Obama is set to meet with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff today in Washington, amid what the WSJ says is optimism over the prospects of closer ties between the two countries. Trade will be high on the agenda, while Rousseff may press her US counterpart to attend a UN environmental meeting in Rio this year, and is expected to criticize US monetary policy. The two are also likely to discuss proposed UN sanctions on Syria, and moves to liberalize their visa policies,reports the Miami Herald. An editorial in the same paper argues that Obama should make visa reform a "personal priority," and that the two should move ahead with a bilateral tax treaty to prevent investors being taxed twice -- Brazil is the only country with a GDP over $1 trillion with which the US does not have such a treaty.
  • The NYT looks at China’s increasing influence in the Caribbean, via “loans from state banks, investments by companies and outright gifts from the government.” The fact that the Asian superpower is gaining influence in an area traditionally dominated by the US is causing some concern in Washington, though the ties do not involve building military bases or establishing security ties. Unlike in Africa and South America, China’s projects in the Caribbean are driven more by long-term economic ventures like tourism than by sourcing commodities, says the NYT.
    With a slideshow of photographs of Chinese workers and China-backed projects in the region.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Cuba’s efforts to shift 1 million people from state jobs and into self-employment by 2014. It says the reforms are going slower than expected, with only 371,000 people currently holding self-employment licenses, while many of these were already working illegally and have just legalized their position. Many of these entrepreneurs buy illegally imported supplies from the black market at high prices, after they have been brought into the country purportedly as “gifts” for relatives.
  • Jeremy McDermott at InSight Crime argues that Colombia’s conflict is entering a new phase, with groups born out of the AUC paramilitaries overcoming ideological divides to team up with drug trafficking rebel groups, including the FARC, against the government.
  • El Tiempo asks what will come next for Colombian peace activist Piedad Cordoba, who has been involved in negotiating the release of FARC hostages, now that the rebel group has freed all political hostages. Cordoba, an ex-senator who was banned from public office over accusations that she had ties to the guerrillas, told the paper she will keep working to bring human rights standards to the conflict. Ex-President Ernesto Samper commented that she is the only person who would be able to build a bridge in less that two years with the FARC.
  • The Associated Press reports that Mexico’s Zetas may have joined forces with the “mara” street gangs of Central America, based on comments from Guatemalan officials.
  • In Peru, nine miners who have been trapped more than 200 meters underground since Thursday are receiving food and liquids through a tube, reports the BBC. Peru’s government has appealed for foreign equipment and experts to help free the men, reports the AP, which says that 52 miners died in mining accidents in the country last year.
  • The LA Times reports on problems with Brazil’s transport infrastructure, which is preventing the economy from expanding faster. It says that Rousseff has attempted to address the issue, privatizing three key airports, raising questions about whether the same action will be taken with other transport assets, like roads or ports, in the rush to get the country ready for the Olympics and soccer World Cup.
  • Simon Romero at the NYT has a piece on a newly-opened astronomy station in Chile’s Atacama Desert, with funding from the US and Europe, which he says is strengthening the country’s position at “the vanguard of astronomy.”

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