Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Amid Waning Support, Maduro Announces Cabinet Shakeup

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced several changes to top administration positions, but the move has been criticized for ignoring an urgent need for economic reforms. 

In a three-hour televised address last night, Maduro finally delivered his long-awaited “sacudón,” or shakeup, which he first promised in June.

The results, however, were underwhelming. Former Oil Minister and Economic Vice President Rafael Ramirez has been named as the new foreign minister, replacing Elias Jaua, who has been put in charge of the government’s “comunas” projects and the Social Development Ministry. Former general Rodolfo Marco Torres will take Ramirez’s place as the new vice president for economic matters, and Asdrubal Chavez, cousin of the deceased Hugo Chavez, will be the new energy minister.

According to Ultimas Noticias, Maduro has characterized the shakeup as a “new stage in the revolution,” promising that his new ministers would simultaneously enact five distinct revolutions, generally aimed at improving services and streamlining economic production. The paper also features a roundup of Twitter responses to the announcement from opposition leaders, many of whom point to the ongoing scarcity of basic consumer goods.

The Miami Herald points out that Maduro’s announcement has, for now, put an end to rumors that the government is preparing a major overhaul of its economic policies. The Wall Street Journal asserts that the shuffle raises questions about whether the president has the political clout to implement potentially unpopular economic measures that Ramirez had supported, like cutting fuel subsidies.

However, deeper economic reforms may come yet. El Universal reports that prior to yesterday’s announcement, Maduro said his government would be hosting a conference in November aimed at “defining the model of transition to a socialist productive economy” and “defining the economic model with greater precision.”

Ahead of this November conference, Maduro will have to convince an increasingly skeptical electorate that he can bring the economic situation under control.  According to an August survey of some 800 Venezuelans by pollster IVAD, 82 percent believe that the country is in an “economic crisis.” The figure is even more notable considering that IVAD has been identified by several analysts -- like University of Glasgow lecturer Iñaki Sagarzazu and opposition blogger Juan Cristobal Nagel -- as having a Chavista slant.

What’s more, respondents (the sample was described as 31 percent pro-government, 24 percent pro-opposition and 45 percent independent) were overwhelmingly in favor of holding a constituent assembly to trigger a political change, with some 67 percent supporting it. Even when this proposal was explicitly tied to imprisoned opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party, some 56 percent of respondents remained in favor of the idea.

The IVAD survey comes on the heels of another poll bearing bad news for Maduro. El Nacional reports that a July survey of 1,298 households by Datanalisis -- the most respected pollster in the country -- found that Maduro’s popularity stands at 35 percent. That’s down from 46.8 percent in February.  

News Briefs  
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has taken advantage of her opponent Marina Silva’s flip flopping on LGBT issues in recent days. After Monday’s debate, Rousseff came out for the first time in support of a law criminalizing homophobia, which has been tabled in the Senate for several years despite efforts by activists to revive it. However, Estadão notes that leading Brazilian LGBT rights advocates view the president’s position with skepticism, and have not forgiven Rousseff for her past inaction on the issue.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero has a playful look at a unique feature of Brazil’s democracy, the adoption of strange monikers and mannerisms by candidates campaigning for local and legislative offices in the country. Often making use of tacky campaign ads broadcast during the mandatory TV airtime slots, some of the strangest of this year’s candidates include two self-styled Barack Obamas, Bin Laden, and Jesus.
  • The Washington Post reports on the reaction to Maduro’s proposal to set up fingerprint scanners in supermarkets along the Colombia-Venezuela border in order to rein in the illicit smuggling of subsidized goods. The announcement has been protested by some as a form of rationing, and is especially unpopular in border communities where smuggling is a primary contributor to the local economy.
  • It appears that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposal to end presidential re-election and extend terms  to “five or six” years is seeing mixed success in Congress. Semana magazine reports that lawmakers will likely pass a bill eliminating re-election, but that there is no interest in extending the standard four-year term.
  • According to La Tercera, a commission set up to study Chile’s Pinochet-era “antiterrorism law” has begun preparing recommendations on potential changes to the controversial measure. A final report will be presented to the Interior Ministry late this month, and analysts say it is aimed at tightening the definition of what acts constitute terrorism and bringing the law in line with Chile’s international treaty obligations.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has denied that he is accepting six Guantanamo detainees to his country under U.S. pressure, and his administration claims that the transfer has been put on hold while certain undisclosed details are being worked out. El Observador cites an official in U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s office as saying that there are no holdups on the U.S. end of things, and that Uruguay is organizing the specifics of the transfer. These remarks come in the wake of a New York Times article published Monday, which cited Obama administration officials as saying that Mujica sought to delay the transfer until after elections in October.
  • President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador is facing a tough public opinion climate early on in his administration. According to a poll released yesterday by La Prensa Grafica, just 40% approve of the new president. As El Salvador analyst Tim Muth notes, Mauricio Funes enjoyed an 84% approval rating -- the highest of any Latin American leader -- at the same point in his presidency.
  • Reuters has an analysis of the impact of Cuba’s new market reforms, which have disproportionately benefited whites over Afro-Cubans and people of mixed race. Not only are white Cubans more likely to have relatives sending them remittances from abroad, but black Cubans say they are also at a disadvantage when seeking jobs in growing self-employment industries like restaurant services and tourism.
  • August marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 mass exodus of Cubans across the Florida straits, in which some 35,000 people made the dangerous trek. NPR reports that the route is still commonly used by many Cuban immigrants, and that a growing number are making the voyage on homemade rafts.
  • The AP profiles the hacker duo behind “LulzSecPeru,” known as the most impressive “hacktivist” collective in Latin America. Their latest feat was the leak of some 3,500 emails from the account of former Prime Minister Rene Cornejo, which exposed the alarming level of influence that the oil and fishing lobbies have in the country.