Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Poverty, Extreme Poverty Increase in Venezuela

Supporters of the Venezuelan government often point to Chavismo's success at reducing poverty and fostering social inclusion, but the country's shifting economic fortunes have placed some of its anti-poverty gains in jeopardy. And in many cases, poor management and lack of funds have led to serious shortcomings in Venezuela's ability to fulfill the economic and social rights guaranteed in its consitution.

This weekend saw more bad news for the Venezuelan economy. On top of its high inflation rate and widespread shortages of basic goods, the official National Statistics Institute (INE) quietly released figures which suggest that poverty is on the rise in the country. According to Ultimas Noticias, the INE figures show that the share of Venezuelans living in poverty rose nearly six points last year, from 21.2 percent in 2012 to 27.3 percent in 2013. The rate of extreme poverty increased as well, to 9.8 percent up from 7.1 percent the year before. This means that during this period, 1.79 million people fell below the official poverty line and 733,000 fell from poverty into extreme poverty.

Caracas-based human rights group PROVEA was quick to respond to the news. In a statement released yesterday, the organization pointed out that the figures directly contradict remarks by President Nicolas Maduro, who said in January that extreme poverty had been cut to 5.5 percent. For PROVEA, the increase represents an infraction of economic and social rights on par with recently-denounced political and civil rights violations in the country. The group warned that "the existing situation of political exclusion is now joined by increasing social exclusion."

PROVEA has long monitored the progress of social and economic rights in Venezuela. In its annual report on the country’s human rights situation, published last week, the group noted increasing restrictions on labor strikes, a drop in construction of public housing as well as serious shortcomings in the public health system. The latter were especially striking, as PROVEA cited an "insufficient, irregular and unreal" public health budget as a primary cause of shortages of personnel, equipment and medicine in major hospitals across the country. 

Indeed, a lack of transparency regarding the government's public spending programs known as Bolivarian Missions is a recurring trend in the report. Ultimately, PROVEA calls for a "profound review" of these programs, and for Maduro to "explain to the country how, despite the existence of 36 social missions, poverty has seen this significant increase."

News Briefs
  • In other Venezuela news, police commissioner Ivan Simonovis, whom the opposition claims is one of the longest-held political prisoners in the country, has begun a hunger strike in protest of his continued imprisonment. El Nacional reports that Simonovis sent a letter to the Supreme Court in which he criticized authorities for denying his requests to be released due to his poor health. Reuters suggests that the announcement could “rekindle” opposition protests, which have ebbed in recent weeks.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives is set to debate a bill today which would levy targeted sanctions against Venezuelan government officials linked to human rights abuses. The legislation’s author, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has said that she expects the bill to pass, telling Buzzfeed that the U.S. State Department appears to have backed off from previous criticisms of sanctions. The vote will not be unanimous, however. Yesterday 14 House Democrats, led by Michigan Rep. John Conyers, sent a letter to President Barack Obama opposing the sanctions push and calling for an exchange of ambassadors with Venezuela. The Miami Herald, meanwhile, notes the arguments of supporters and critics of the bill, and suggests that Foreign Minister Elias Jaua has already begun framing the threat of sanctions as an act of “U.S. imperialism” in recent UNASUR and Non-Aligned Movement summits.
  • Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez’s new online newspaper, 14ymedio, continues to make headlines (See El Pais, EFE, Univision). The site’s latest high-profile piece is Sanchez’s interview of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in which he discussed the case of imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and called for economic reforms on the island to be paired with increased individual liberties. As analyst James Bosworth points out, Sanchez also skillfully touched on the U.S. embargo’s impact on opposition activism, asking if the Obama administration planned to ease restrictions on Cuban access to app stores and some Google services.
  • O Globo reports that Brazilian senators yesterday voted to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to expropriate land from individuals who employ conditions of slave labor, a phenomenon seen in sugar cane plantations and cattle ranches in remote areas of the country’s interior. The vote, which comes after the lower house approved the measure in 2012, essentially ends a 15-year legislate debate over the reform.
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles discontent among Brazilians over waste and corruption associated with the World Cup preparations in the country, which has been deepened by analysts’ claims that the long-term economic benefits of the Cup will fall short of government promises.
  • The Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) has released a new report today which offers a useful roundup of drug policy throughout Latin America. The study, "En busca de los derechos: Usuarios de drogas y las respuestas estatales en América Latina,” looks at oficial responses to small-scale drug possession and use in eight countries in the region: Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. Perhaps their most interesting finding is that even in countries where drug use is not a criminal offense (Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia), possession accounts for a large portion of overall drug-related detentions.
  • The Ecuadorean government has announced that an international arrest warrant had been issued for former President Jamil Mahuad, who is accused of embezzling public funds during the country’s 1998-99 banking crisis. The AP notes that Mahuad has been on trial in abstentia for over 13 years in the country, and is living in the United States.
  • Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, offers a look at Colombia’s peace process and its ramifications for the U.S. government. While U.S. policymakers have largely echoed President Juan Manuel Santos’ support for peace talks, Haugaard argues that it remains to be seen whether this will translate into concrete funding commitments for post-conflict development initiatives, declassification of documents in the interest of truth and reconciliation, and a retreat from heavy U.S. involvement in drug eradication campaigns.
  • Colombia’s FARC rebels have declined to respond to first-round presidential election winner and peace talk critic Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who recently announced he would suspend talks until the guerrillas cease “crimes against the population.” Spanish news agency EFE reports that FARC spokesman in Havana Ivan Marquez said Zuluaga’s remarks were premature, and accused him of “putting the horse before the cart.”