Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Venezuela Experiments with ‘Rationing’ in Western State

In an indication that Venezuela’s battle with basic good shortages may be getting more dire, the western state of Zulia is implementing a new rationing system, though the government has stressed that the measure is only aimed at smuggling subsidized products across the border into Colombia.

The Associated Press reports that the government of Zulia will begin issuing smart cards next week that will limit residents’ purchases of basic items like toilet paper, rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar. The policy is expected to be implemented gradually, and will first apply only to 65 supermarkets in the cities of Maracaibo and San Francisco.

Officials have taken care to frame the card system as a necessary policy to combat contraband in the border state. “This is only in Zulia state and it is not rationing,” said Information Ministry spokesman Raimundo Urrechaga.

Still, the move doesn’t look good in the face of historic food shortages across the country. According to Venezuela’s Central Bank, the scarcity index rose to 21 percent in April, the highest figure on record since 2009. Last month, a widespread shortage of toilet paper forced the government to order 50 million rolls, and Catholic Church leaders in the country have asked priests to “ration wine and look for alternatives during this emergency.”

Polls suggest Venezuelan public opinion is shifting in favor of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, with an IVAD survey released in May showing 45.8 percent of the country would vote for Capriles in new elections, compared to just 40.8 percent for President Nicolas Maduro. If the government fails to rein in food shortages in the near future, this margin will likely grow.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a series of agreements with Chinese President Xi Jinping, promising closer trade ties and cooperation on issues such as education, energy and mining. The meeting effectively ended years of cool relations between the two countries which began when former Mexican President Felipe Calderon received the Dali Lama. In a joint statement, Mexico said it now recognizes the “One China policy,” and considers Tibet and Taiwan to be "an inalienable part of Chinese territory." The visit was part of President Jinping’s first official trip to Latin America, in which he visited Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica in addition to Mexico. The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer argues that the tour is a “tit-for-tat for Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar.”
  • To coincide with the OAS General Assembly currently underway in Guatemala, Human Rights Watch has added its voice to the growing international consensus that personal drug use should be decriminalized. “While protecting health is a legitimate government purpose, criminalizing drug use to protect people from harming themselves does not meet the criteria of necessity or proportionality,” the HRW claims in a press release.
  • Uruguay is one step closer to becoming the first country in the world to fully legalize and regulate marijuana production and consumption. El Observador reports that the ruling Frente Amplio party of President Jose Mujica has closed ranks in support of the marijuana regulation bill, after strengthening its language on drug education and prevention programs to appease lawmakers on the fence. The bill will likely pass the lower house in a vote next week.
  • John Kerry arrived in Guatemala for the General Assembly yesterday, in his first visit to Latin America as Secretary of State. The AP reports that Kerry met with Guatemalan President Otto Perez soon after arriving, and notes that building support for reform to the regional body is a top priority. In 2010 Kerry co-wrote a Miami Herald op-ed in which he criticized the OAS for being a “a pliable tool of inconsistent political agendas,” and his opinion is believed to have changed little since then.
  • The Americas Quarterly blog looks at the potential for OAS countries hostile to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to coopt it by nominating members who will seek to limit its function. Of the seven seats on the Commission, three will be filled in Guatemala. The ALBA bloc appears to be behind Ecuador’s Erick Roberts Garces, who is widely seen as a proponent of reforming the human rights body.
  • According to an anonymous U.S. diplomat, Kerry is also expected to meet briefly with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua while in Guatemala. The State Department official told the AFP that Kerry is “interested in trying to find out if we can have this positive, more functional relationship.”
  • Argentina’s Supreme Court has ended a freeze on the assets of Chevron Corporation in the country, initially ordered last year in response to an Ecuadorean judge ordering the company to pay $19 billion for environmental damages. The decision comes as a blow to Ecuador’s efforts to go after Chevron’s assets outside its borders.
  • After repeated reporting by the Associated Press which found evidence of police involvement in extrajudicial “death squads” aimed at suspected gang members in Honduras, a court has issued arrest warrants for five officers accused of killing seven gang members in San Pedro Sula.
  • Police in Mexico’s Guerrero state have found the bodies of three activists who went missing last week, one of whom was a local leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Animal Politico reports. Meanwhile, Amnesty International is the latest watchdog NGO to call the disappearances in Mexico a “human rights crisis.”
  • The New York Times’ Karla Zabludovsky looks at the semantics of abortion in El Salvador, where doctors were able to induce a caesarian section birth to save the life of a woman who had been denied an abortion by the Supreme Court. Some pro-choice and anti-abortion groups have welcomed the procedure as a compromise in a country which outlaws abortions in all cases, but others see it as a kind of backdoor move of questionable legality. 

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