Voter turnout heavy in Venezuela; Chavez vows to respect results

CARACAS, Venezuela — Voter turnout was reported heavy across Venezuela in Sunday’s presidential election in which leftist President Hugo Chavez is seeking a fourth term against challenger Henrique Capriles, a youthful center-right former governor who says the incumbent’s socialist experiment has failed.

After casting his vote at in a poor neighborhood in western Caracas, Chavez saluted supporters who were present, including Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu and Hollywood actor Danny Glover.

"We will respect the decision of the people, whether it's by 3 million votes or just one," Chavez said,  expressing confidence in Venezuela's ballot-counting system, calling it "the best in the world."

Capriles voted in the affluent Mercedes zone of eastern Caracas and afterward said he too would respect the will of the electorate. "I'm very emotional and very happy," he said. "Something good is happening." 

Support for the two candidates seemed to break down along demographic lines. It came as no surprise that backing for Capriles seemed almost unanimous in the middle- to upper-class Santa Rosa barrio in eastern Caracas, where many express a visceral dislike of Chavez and his “Bolivarean Revolution.”

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Awakened in Venezuela capital by reveille, voters head for polls

Venezuela election
CARACAS, Venezuela — As President Hugo Chavez promised, many residents of Venezuela's capital awoke early Sunday to the sounds of "El Toque de Diana," a recorded version of military reveille blaring over loudspeakers. It was literally a wake-up call to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

In his closing campaign rally Thursday, Chavez, a former army colonel, said he wanted to roust Venezuelans to vote early so that his “irreversible” victory would be plain by midday. Most pollsters, however, expect an exceedingly tight vote and that the ballot count could extend into tonight’s wee hours. Although Chavez leads in most polls, some indicate challenger Henrique Capriles could eke out a victory.

In any case, residents in Caracas responded in droves; by 8 a.m., lines a half-mile long or longer were snaking around many of the capital’s polling places, a reflection of the significance of the election in this highly polarized country.

The nation's 19-million eligible voters face a stark choice. If Chavez is reelected to a fourth term, Venezuela will continue along the socialist path he has charted. The redistribution of the country’s oil wealth, housing, ranches and farmland will continue and more private enterprises almost certainly will be nationalized.

If Capriles wins, the takeovers will stop and private property will be more respected, although the former Miranda state governor has promised to retain Chavez’s social welfare programs called Missions, even seeking to make them more efficient.

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In Venezuela, Chavez foe demands justice in killing of two followers

Venezuela presidential candidate Henrique Capriles

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Presidential challenger Henrique Capriles on Monday lamented the killing of two of his followers during a weekend rally in the western state of Barinas and said the attack was a symptom of rising violence by followers of President Hugo Chavez against his campaign.

“Yesterday a bottle of paint hit me in the face. If this had happened to the other side, we would now be having an assassination investigation,” Capriles said at a news conference in Caracas, where he discussed Saturday’s attack on his supporters. He called on the government to “let people express themselves peacefully.”

Voters go to the polls Sunday to choose between Capriles and Chavez, who has been in office since February 1999 and is seeking another six-year term. Although most polls have Chavez in the lead, Capriles has narrowed the gap. Capriles insists he will win by 1 million votes.

He demanded an investigation into the shooting deaths of his supporters and urged that the campaign be peaceful. “The election wil be won by votes, not violence or insults,” he said.

One of the victims, Jackson Valero, was the son of Ramon "Chucho" Valero, a former opposition candidate for mayor of Bolivar in Barinas state. The shootings occurred after alleged Chavez followers tried to block a Capriles campaign parade.

Capriles wrapped up the Caracas portion of his campaign with a massive rally Sunday that attracted tens of thousands. As his campaign has gathered strength and opinion polls have shown him narrowing Chavez's lead, attacks by Chavez supporters have increased in the streets as well as over the airwaves.

During a Sunday night program on state-controlled television, the host played what he said was a wiretapped recording of a telephone conversation of Capriles’ father allegedly discussing an illegal campaign contribution.

Capriles on Monday denied any such contribution had been encouraged or accepted, and said, “The incredible thing is that they transmitted an illegal recording over a public channel,” Capriles said.

The incumbent “has distanced himself from the process of change," Capriles said. "He’s become sick with power.”

Capriles also told reporters he will announce his vice presidential running mate Thursday. Rumors point to Lara Gov. Henry Falcon, a former Chavez supporter and now opposition leader. Capriles also said he has selected an unidentified and currently serving armed forces general to be his defense minister if he is victorious.


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-- Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, center, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas state, Monday. Credit: Leo Ramirez / AFP

Panetta lifts ban on New Zealand naval ships

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in Auckland, New Zealand,

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Friday that New Zealand naval ships would be allowed to dock at U.S. bases, lifting a 26-year-old ban.

The decision, announced by Panetta at a news conference, eases the long-running dispute between the two countries over New Zealand's refusal to allow U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons or using nuclear power into its ports.

The U.S. move is an overture to New Zealand at a time when the Pentagon is rebuilding military relations in the region, in part to counter China's growing clout in the South Pacific.

But there are few signs that New Zealand will reciprocate by easing its anti-nuclear law to allow a return of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships to its ports.

"While we acknowledge that our countries continue to have differences of opinion in some limited areas ... we are embarking on a new course that will not let these differences stand in the way of greater engagement on security issues," Panetta said.

Asked whether the decision to give New Zealand access to American bases could lead to a resumption of U.S. Navy ship calls in New Zealand, Panetta said, "Let's see where it takes us."

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Colombian president announces fall peace talks with rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Prospects for an end to four decades of civil strife in Colombia inched closer to reality Tuesday as President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government had agreed to start peace talks in Norway with the country’s largest rebel group in a bid to end the conflict.

The first open negotiations in a decade between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will start in early October and span "months, not years," Santos said.

Santos was referring to the open-ended, three-year negotiations that collapsed in 2002 after accomplishing little more than disillusioning most Colombians and leaving the FARC militarily stronger.

The new talks will begin in Oslo and then move to Cuba, Santos said. Representatives of the Venezuelan and Chilean governments will act as facilitators.

Conscious that many Colombians, including former President Alvaro Uribe, are deeply skeptical of the talks, Santos said he personally was accepting responsibility for launching the negotiations.

“There comes a moment in history when you have to take risks to arrive at a solution,” Santos said during his 18-minute speech broadcast from the presidential palace in Bogota. “This is one of those moments.”

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White House: Peru displaces Colombia as top cocaine producer

Colombian soldier at cocaine lab
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Peru has regained its former distinction as the world’s top cocaine producer, according to an annual White House report, issued Monday, that says Colombia’s output fell sharply last year, putting the former leader in third place behind Bolivia.

The report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy diverged from a U.N. monitor’s report last week that estimated Colombian cocaine production at a much higher level. No reason was given for the disparity in the reports, which usually track each other closely.

The White House report estimates Peruvian cocaine production last year at 358 U.S. tons, followed by Bolivia with 292 tons and Colombia at 215 tons. It’s the first year since 1997 that Colombia has not led in global cocaine output in the report. The recent figures represent a 25% drop from White House estimates that Colombia produced 286 tons of cocaine in 2010, topping all producers.

Peru was the world's leading producer of the drug through most of the 1980s and 1990s, before Colombian drug traffickers introduced crops here in a bid to form vertically integrated cocaine cartels. Both the White House and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime use satellite imagery, on-the-ground monitoring, seizures and other indicators to come up with their estimates of cocaine production.

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Evita now graces Argentina's 100-peso note

Evita graces peso note
BUENOS AIRES -- Exalted in countless books, a Broadway musical and a Madonna movie, Argentina’s Eva Peron now graces that country’s 100-peso note in commemoration of her death 60 years ago Thursday.

In a ceremony, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said she wants the Eva Peron commemorative peso note to become permanent, replacing one featuring Julio Argentino Roca, one of the country's early presidents.

“It seems to me to be an homage that we owe not only to her but to ourselves,” Fernandez told a gathering Wednesday at the presidential palace.

In the background was an enlarged facsimile of the bill, featuring a profile shot of the blond former dancer popularly known as Evita. She was the wife of President Juan Peron, who ruled from 1946 to 1955, and then again for nine months prior to his death in 1974.

The 100-peso note currently is valued at nearly $22.

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U.N.: Colombian coca and cocaine production shows little change

Annual report on Colombian coca and cocaine production
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The United Nation’s annual survey of coca leaf and cocaine production in Colombia on Wednesday showed little change from a year earlier, leading Colombian officials to praise the country's efforts to reduce its output of illicit drugs.  

A determination on whether Peru has taken the lead in coca leaf or cocaine production, as some law enforcement officials expect, will have to wait until late August when that country’s survey is completed, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime local director Aldo Lale Demoz said at a news conference in Bogota.

Peru led the world in cocaine production in the early 1980s before the main nexus of the illicit industry shifted to Colombia. By 2010, increased law enforcement pressure on criminal gangs and rebel groups processing cocaine had forced the industry back south to Peru and Bolivia. Last year, Peru nearly displaced Colombia as the world’s largest producer of the illegal powder.

The U.N. survey based on satellite and on the ground monitoring showed that as of Dec. 31, there were roughly 160,000 acres of coca crops being grown in Colombia, up from 155,000 acres at the end of 2010. “Potential production” of cocaine was calculated at 345 metric tons for all of 2011, down slightly from 350 metric tons a year previous.

Unlike some past years, the U.N. survey for other Andean coca and cocaine producers was not released on the same day as the Colombian study.

Although the figures for both coca and cocaine production were about flat on a year on year basis -- a 3% increase in coca leaf production and a 1% decline in cocaine production -- Colombian justice minister Ruth Stella Correa hailed them as part of a continuing decadelong trend toward less illegal drug production.

“The 345 tons produced last year are 625 tons less than were estimated a decade ago. That’s an important statistic to highlight and one which the people should know,” said Correa, who attended the U.N. news conference. She noted that the U.N. estimated that Colombia produced 970 tons of cocaine in 2001.

Officials said total acres eradicated manually or through aerial spraying of herbicides in 2011 totaled 342,000 acres, down 6% from the 362,500 acres of crops destroyed in 2010. Manual eradication programs have been scaled back in recent years partly because of the rising casualty rates among eradicators and armed forces members who guard them.

The U.N. report noted that the fastest growing coca farming region in Colombia is southern Putumayo province, particularly the strip within about six miles of the Ecuadorean border, a zone where Colombian authorities  have agreed not to spray herbicides because of alleged health consequences for Ecuadoreans living across the border.

The U.N. also reported that Colombian authorities seized 155.8 metric tons of cocaine last year, down from 164.8 tons in 2010.


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Photo: The representative in Colombia of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Aldo Lale Demoz, center, talks next to Colombia Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa, left, and the director of Counternarcotics Police of Colombia, Gen. Luis Alberto Perez, during the presentation of the annual report on illicit crops in the country, in Bogota on Wednesday. Credit: Leonardo Munoz / EPA

Venezuela's Globovision pays $2.1 million fine to stay on air

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Globovision TV, a frequent critic of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, bowed to government pressure and said Friday that it will pay a contested $2.1-million fine the day after the penalty was upheld by the Supreme Court and a government official threatened to close down the station.

Calling the fine “unjust and disproportionate,” Globovision Executive Vice President Carlos Zuloaga said the broadcaster’s board of directors decided to pay under protest. The fine was levied last year for what the government described as biased coverage of prison riots that “encouraged illegality.”

Still uncertain was whether the station will have to pay late penalties and interest that could amount to about triple the original fine.

Press freedom advocates have criticized the Chavez government for the fine, saying it’s the latest example of attempts to squelch dissent. In 2007, the government denied the renewal of the broadcast license of another opposition channel, RCTV, provoking widespread student protests that later that year contributed to the defeat of a referendum, Chavez's only electoral loss since he took office in early 1999.

Communication and Information Minister Andres Izarra told reporters Thursday at an event tied to next week’s official kickoff of the presidential election campaign that the Globovision case showed the rule of law prevailed in Venezuela.

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Leading foe rejects new plan for Peru mine

Peru mine protest
LIMA, Peru -- A prominent regional leader who has led protests against a $4.8-billion gold and copper mining project in northern Peru said he opposed a new offer made by President Ollanta Humala and Newmont Mining.

Under the new plan, reservoirs would be built to expand by 10 times the water storage capacity of existing lakes near the proposed site of the mine. With Humala’s backing, Newmont Mining said the reservoirs would address the concerns of residents that the Conga project could endanger water supplies.

But in a telephone interview, Gregorio Santos, president of the Cajamarca region, said Humala and Newmont had both lost credibility. Santos said he and other opposition leaders in northern Peru were sticking to their demand that an independent environmental impact study be carried out before the project goes ahead.

The Cajamarca region is where Newmont operates the Yanacocha open-pit gold mine, one of the largest in the world.

“Humala says he wants dialogue, but he has not listened to the people of Cajamarca,” Santos said. “Now we don’t believe him, and he is only repeating the words of economic power groups.”

In an address to the nation Saturday, Humala said the Conga project would go forward  and promised that water supplies would not be compromised.

“Water comes first, that’s the condition,” he said. “My government would never permit the development of any mining project that exposes the population to the loss of water or the lack of quality standards required for human consumption.” '

Mining has been a prime engine of Peru’s stellar economic growth over the last decade, luring billions of investment dollars amid a global commodities boom. Humala has said he needs the taxes and royalties from the Conga project, which was approved by his predecessor, to help pay for ambitious social programs.

Observers say the project is also a gauge of Humala's commitment to foreign investment despite his leftist rhetoric during his successful presidential campaign last year.

Colorado-based Newmont says the mining design is sound and there is no need for the months-long delay that would result from carrying out another environmental study. Company Vice President Carlos Santa Cruz said recently that Newmont was willing to address any mistakes of the past, reach “a new state of understanding” with residents and contribute to a $49-million social works fund.

Peasant protests over mining projects in Cajamarca in December and in Espinar province to the south in May prompted the government to declare states of emergency, suspending the right to assembly and other constitutional protections. Unlike with the standoff in Cajamarca, protesters against the $1.5-billion Espinar project proposed by Swiss-based Xstrata are negotiating with the company.

“We will not accept Conga," said Santos, the regional president. "There are projects in Peru that are just going to sit there because the people feel they would mean abandoning their natural resources. Cajamarca will continue resisting.”


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-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia 

Photo: Hundreds of people demonstrate against the Conga mining project in Cajamarca, in the mountains of northern Peru, in May. Credit: Francisco Vigo/European Pressphoto Agency


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