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Venezuela: At a Crossroads

Hugo-Chavez_486280a.jpg

While Venezuela prepares for another Constitutional referendum, the country is in turmoil.

Back in December 2007 Hugo Chavez held a referendum to change the Venezuelan constitution. The 69 amendments would have ended presidential term limits and centralized Chavez’s power, even when he already controlled the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, almost every state government and the entire federal bureaucracy. The changes were rejected by 51% of the voters. However, Chavez didn’t give up on his power consolidation goal. Last year he enacted 26 new laws by announcing initially only their title, not their content, and continued to push for ending presidential term limits. This Sunday, the country votes again on term limits.

In the period since the 2007 referendum, Chavez has continued to nationalize the private sector, including food production and distribution, steelmaking, cement companies, and the Banco de Venezuela. Oil revenues are mismanaged: A computer belonging to FARC members proved that Chavez had sent hundreds of millions of oil dollars to the Colombian terrorists, with which he had made common cause. The oil industry, on which the Venezuelan economy is more dependent now than when Chavez first took office, is behind on billions of dollars in payments to private oil contractors from Oklahoma to Belarus.

The business environment has been rated by The Economist as the world’s second-worst. The country’s official inflation rate of 31% is the highest out of the 82 world currencies tracked by Bloomberg.

During his years in office Chavez has forged increasingly strong ties with Iran. Last December Italian newspaper La Stampa (link in Italian) reported that Iran is going through Venezuela to dodge UN sanctions and use Venezuelan aircraft to ship missile parts to Syria. La Stampa reported that Venezuelan airline Conviasa transports computers and engine components from the Iranian industrial group Shahid Bagheri, which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile program. Iran Air initiated direct air service between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas at Chavez’s invitation. Western anti-terrorism officials are concerned that Hezbollah may be using Venezuela as a base for operations. Hezbollah activities may include kidnappings, extortion and drug trade.

Internally, the political opposition has few resources and no unified leadership (link in Spanish). Student demonstrators have been tear-gassed and fired at with rubber bullets by police. Chavez banned Lech Walesa from visiting the country and meeting with student leaders on Thursday. However, the opposition managed a large demonstration against the constitutional amendment last weekend, and met on Friday with EU delegates who are in Venezuela to observe the electoral process even when the delegates have not been granted official observer status.

The government’s propaganda for a YES vote is constant and everywhere as the referendum nears.

A regime under attack?
As H. L. Menken said,

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Hugo Chavez is very adept at hobgoblin creation.

Last week three low-intensity explosions in Caracas – at a statue of George Washington, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Caracas, and a judicial building – created further insecurity, while Stratfor and other analysts were unable to ascertain who would have been behind the attacks.

Hugo Chavez consistently rants against the US in his hours-long radio and TV program Aló Presidente, rarely missing an opportunity to blame the CIA for creating mayhem or trying to oust him. He indulged some more during his celebration of his 10th anniversary in power.

On this week preceding the referendum, Chavez claimed an attempted coup against his palace by army troops in contact with "a soldier on the run in the United States," had been curtailed.

As a self-declared Communist, Chavez constantly rants against capitalism and "pitiyankis", pro-capitalist Venezuelans.

In addition to blaming the US and capitalism, Chavez has a long record of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel statements. On December 2005 Venezuelan The Devil’s Excrement translated Chavez’s televised rant,

The world is for all of us, then, but it so happens that a minority, the descendants of the same ones that crucified Christ, the descendants of the same ones that kicked Bolivar out of here and also crucified him in their own way over there in Santa Marta, in Colombia. A minority has taken possession all of the wealth of the world, a minority has taken ownership of all of the gold of the planet, of the silver, of the minerals, the waters, the good lands, oil, of the wealth then and have concentrated the wealth in a few hands
Chavez ignores history, since Simon Bolivar, when a fugitive from Spain took shelter with Jews, some of which later joined his independence uprising. But never mind that. Chavez’s own brand of Marxism is based on the theories espoused by Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole, who believed that one of the greatest threats to the Chávez regime lay in Venezuela’s “Jewish financial mafia.” Government media propaganda on official TV station VTV regularly attacks Israel and Jews.

An anti-Semitic ad (which I translated at my blog), apparently paid for by the governor’s office of the State of Anzoategui ran in 2006 accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. As it turns out, the ad ran on the same week that Chavez was awarded “The High Medallion of the Islamic Republic of Iran” during his state visit to that country.

Last month Venezuela broke relations with Israel for the second time, this time in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza. Bolivia did the same, and Bolivian president Evo Morales's announcement,

came shortly after he received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asking him to support an international agreement to resolve the Gaza crisis.
Anti-Semitic graffiti is appearing in Caracas. On January 24 a rabbi was beaten by attackers before being rescued by a group of taxi drivers.

Update on the Maripérez synagogue raid:
As I posted on RCW, on on Jan. 30, a group of men forced their way into the Tiferet Israel Sephardic Synagogue, staying until 3 a.m. They ransacked the temple, destroyed several Torahs and vandalized the offices. The same synagogue had been vandalized with graffiti last month, as was the Israeli Embassy.

Significantly, they stole databases with the names and addresses of Jewish families in Venezuela and also the many charities sponsored by the CAIV (Confederation of Israelite Associations of Venezuela).

This is particularly troubling : Daniel Debow translated a post allegedly written by a Bolivarian University professor at the pro-Chavez website Aporrea.org (the post has since been erased) inciting people

"To publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park to take a stand shouting at them slogans in favor of Palestine and against that abortion: Israel."
"Denounce publicly, with names and last names the members of powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela"
There is very good reason to suspect that the reason behind the raid was to obtain the database, nothing was stolen except the hard drives from the computers.

Police have arrested 11 people, including seven police officers. Valentin Santana, leader of the pro-Chavez group La Piedrita, was blamed for conspiring in the attacks on the synagogue and the Apostolic Nunciature in Venezuela. Chavez claims that La Piedrita has been inflirtrated by the CIA.

There have been much rumors and speculation on this crime: Venezuelan journalist Patricia Poleo alleges that

The Metropolitan Police officers arrested for [allegedly] being responsible for the Mariperez synagogue attack are members of organizations directly under the management of Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami.
According to The Menges’ Americas Report,
Mr. El – Aissami is a Venezuelan national of Syrian descent who, before becoming Minster of Interior and Justice, occupied the position of Deputy Interior Minister for Public Security. His father, Carlos Aissami, is the head of the Venezuelan branch of the Iraqi Baath political party. Before the invasion of Iraq, he held a press conference in which he described himself as a Taliban and called Osama Bin Laden, “the great Mujahedeen, Sheik Osama bin Laden.” Tarek’s great-uncle Shibli el-Aissami was a prominent ideologist and assistant to the party’s secretary general in Baghdad during the Saddam Hussein regime.
But back to the Mariperez investigation: Al Aissami in turn said that one of the suspects is the former bodyguard of one of the Rabbis.

According to police information published by El Universal, the raid was planned by Yadira Torres, a woman detective at the homicide division of the Cicpc, and brought about when Edgar Alexander Cordero, an officer with the metropolitan police and former bodyguard asked the rabbi for a loan. The rabbi refused and Cordero decided to steal the money from the office safe. One of the two watchmen on duty, Víctor Eduardo Escalona Lovera, cut off the electricity and let them in. Police are searching for additional suspects.

Elías Farache, president of the Venezuelan Jewish Association, thanked the authorities for the “fast and effective” investigation. Farache rejected accusations that the Jewish community had perpetrated the vandalism at the synagogue in order to damage the government’s image.

In this charged atmosphere, the constitutional referendum is scheduled for next Sunday, February 15. According to the current constitution, Chavez’s term is scheduled to expire on 2013.

Last Tuesday’s headline? Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez says he might not take a ''no'' vote as the final word on his efforts to expand his time in office.

Fausta also blogs at Fausta's Blog