Venezuelan presidential campaign already heating up

Hugo chavez

REPORTING FROM CARACAS –- Venezuelans quickly got a taste of how nasty this year’s presidential campaign will be, as President Hugo Chavez speaking at a function in eastern Bolivar state on Wednesday, launched various broadsides at Henrique Capriles, winner of Sunday’s opposition primary.

“He is the anti-homeland candidate, capitalism’s candidate, the Yanquis’ candidate,” Chavez said, again hinting, as he has numerous times in recent months, that a change in government after the Oct. 7 election could bring chaos. “We are the guarantors of stability in this country, they are the ones of instability.”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered the opposition to turn over voting registries to the national electoral commission that the united anti-Chavez factions had promised to destroy so as to protect the identities of those who turned out at the polls.

The promise was made in response to widespread fears among anti-Chavistas  that Chavez opponents would be blackballed from government jobs and contracts. On Wednesday, Chavez denied any such allegations. “Stop using those fallacious arguments. Here there is no persecution.”

The court ordered police on Tuesday to seize records of some of the 3 million votes cast, after mayoral candidate Rafael Velasquez in Yaracuy state disputed the result. But the records already had been destroyed. El Universal newspaper reported that the president of the court then ruled that those responsible for the records now are subject to arrest.

The Capriles camp claims that Chavez is using state-controlled media to smear their candidate. In a blog posting on National Radio of Venezuela, a state-controlled station, the writer accused Capriles, who is born of Jewish parents but who is a practicing Catholic, of “representing our worst enemy, Zionism.”

On the TV show called La Hojilla broadcast over government channel Venezuelan TV, host Mario Silva in recent weeks frequently has described Capriles, a bachelor, as gay.


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-- Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets supporters Wednesday in Ciudad Bolivar. Credit: Associated Press / Miraflores Press Office 

By the numbers: Venezuela and President Hugo Chavez


Longtime Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez will face Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles in October in a presidential election that will decide whether Chavez can stay in power after 13 years in office. The campaign is likely to focus on how the South American nation has changed for better or worse during that lengthy term. Here's a rundown:

Homicides – The rate has doubled under Chavez to 67 people per 100,000, according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, which tracks homicides.

Perceived corruption – Between 1999 and 2011, Venezuela moved from 75th to 172nd on the Corruption Perception Index created by nonprofit Transparency International.

Poverty – Extreme poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half, with the percentage of Venezuelans living in dire poverty from 20% down to 10%, according to economist Jose Manuel Puente.

Child mortality – The likelihood that a child will die before reaching his or her 5th birthday has dropped from 2.5% to 1.8% between 1999 and 2010, the last data available from the World Bank.

Unemployment – Joblessness fell from 15.2% to 8.8% between 1999 and 2011 according to national statistics. Though the rate has fallen, it is still seen as a problem in Venezuela.

Children out of school – The number of elementary school students out of school dropped from nearly 440,000 to 171,000 between 1999 and 2010, according to World Bank figures.

Competitiveness – Venezuela dropped from 50th to 124th on the World Economic Forum rankings of competitiveness, which are meant to measure potential for growth.

Foreign investment – The flow of foreign investment turned. In 1999 Venezuela gained nearly $2.9 billion in foreign investment. In 2010, it lost $1.4 billion, according to World Bank data.

Oil production – Venezuelan production of crude oil fell between 1999 and 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Inflation – Inflation has bobbled throughout Chavez’s tenure, volleying between 13% and 31%, according to World Bank figures.


In Latin America, Chinese cars are gaining buyers

Venezuela's Henrique Capriles will face Hugo Chavez in race

Venezuela turnout shows hunger for peace, Henrique Capriles says

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez waves as he attends the first session of a summit by the eight-nation Bolivarian Alliance bloc in Caracas, Venezuela, in February. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press


The five people trying to unseat Hugo Chavez


Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday to decide who will try to unseat Hugo Chavez, the flamboyant leftist who has led the country for 13 years. Five people are competing to take on Chavez. Who are they?

Henrique Capriles -- A Miranda state governor who has promised to help both business and the poor. He praises the policies of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He recently criticized a lack of transparency in how Venezuela is using $30 billion in Chinese loans.

Pablo Perez -- A Zulia state governor who argues that he alone can guarantee an orderly transition if Chavez loses. Perez is backed by two established political parties, which could help or hurt him. Three years ago, he and other governors joined Capriles in complaining that Chavez had hijacked resources.

Maria Corina Machado -- A congresswoman seen as the boldest opponent of Chavez. She accuses pro-government gangs of harassing her and endorses "popular capitalism" over socialism. When she won her seat two years ago, Machado said voters had rejected "Cuban-style communism."

Diego Arria -- A former United Nations official who asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Chavez for crimes against humanity, claiming he had evidence of assassinations and torture.

Pablo Medina -- A former Chavez supporter who broke with the president over concerns that changes to the constitution gave him too much power. A year and a half ago, he argued on television that Chavez should be investigated for treason.

Chavez has said he doesn't care which one of them wins on Sunday, arguing that whoever wins will be "the candidate of imperialism," the Associated Press reported.


Chavez losing natural constituency

Mexican ambassador and wife briefly kidnapped in Venezuela

Chavez holds parade to commemorate 1992 overthrow attempt

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles greets supporters in Merida on Friday. Credit: Guillermo Suarez / European Pressphoto Agency

South American prison deaths tied to overcrowding, official says

Violence at prisons in South America, where at least eight inmates were killed in recent weeks, remains tied to alarmingly shoddy conditions and rampant overcrowding, a United Nations official said Thursday.

Inmates in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile reportedly died during the last two weeks as a result of prison violence.

The “alarming pattern of prison violence in the region” points to problems with adequate space and unsanitary conditions, said Amerigo Incalcaterra, the U.N. human rights representative for South America. Prisons in the region are overcrowded by anywhere from 30% to 70%.

In Uruguay, three inmates died from inhaling smoke when someone intentionally set a fire, possibly because the prisoners robbed their cellmates, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported:

“The boys are tired of, for example, my mother bringing me things and them [the other prisoners] taking them from me. The problems inside here are for those reasons. They couldn’t take any more and set the fire when [the victims] were sleeping inside the cell,” said one inmate interviewed by El Espectador. 

In Argentina, one prisoner was stabbed to death by another prisoner, while another was killed by blows to the head, allegedly by guards. 

Venezuela is trying to tackle the problem with a new prison ministry after more than two dozen people died in prison riots in July. Officials are pledging to speed up trials for inmates charged with minor offenses.

Critics say the crowded prisons are the offspring of the South American war on drugs, which has led to severe punishments for even minor drug offenses.

"The implementation of harsh drug laws has fueled rising incarceration rates and has contributed to severe prison overcrowding," the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute wrote in a study two years ago.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Chavez holds parade to commemorate 1992 overthrow attempt

Hugo Chavez parade in Caracas, Venezuela.

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- With a week to go before opposition candidates hold a primary election to determine his main opponent in October’s presidential election, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez threw a military parade Saturday to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of his abortive coup.

On Feb. 4, 1992, then-army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez led dissident troops in an attempt to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez. The mutiny failed, Chavez surrendered and was later sentenced to prison. He was pardoned after two years’ confinement, and later mounted his successful 1998 presidential campaign. He recently marked the end of his 13th year in office.

Observers saw the parade, which included Russian tanks and high-tech weaponry, as an effort to fire up Chavez’s support base before the election, which could be Chavez’s toughest electoral test yet. Chavez, who has undergone surgery and chemotherapy for cancer diagnosed last June, looked somewhat bloated but otherwise in good form.

The guest list included Cuban President Raul Castro, as well as Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega, the leaders of Bolivia and Nicaragua, respectively. Actor Sean Penn, whose Haiti relief efforts have been supported by Chavez, arrived in Caracas on Friday night accompanying Haitian President Michel Martelly.

In a joint communique, opposition candidates slammed the parade, arguing that  commemorating an overthrow attempt was “anti-constitutional.” Former Defense Minister Fernando Ochoa Antich said the coup attempt was a “betrayal of the oath of a soldier,” noting that Chavez came to office not because of a coup but because he won a democratic election.

In a speech Thursday, Chavez said that “the opposition likes to say the armed forces should be purged of Chavistas. The armed forces of Venezuela are Chavista, whatever anyone says, whoever that bothers.”


Chavez closes Miami consulate in response to expulsion

China's Venezuela presence grows with loan-for-oil deal

Mexican ambassador and wife briefly kidnapped in Venezuela

-- Mery Mogollon and  Chris Kraul

Photo: Soldiers take part in military parade Feb. 4, 2012, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the failed coup attempt by President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press

Mexican ambassador and wife briefly kidnapped in Venezuela

REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In an incident that illustrates the security risks in Caracas, police in the Venezuelan capital confirmed that Mexico's ambassador and his wife were kidnapped and robbed late Sunday night and released unharmed early Monday morning.

The couple were detained as they drove their BMW in the affluent Country Club sector of eastern Caracas. Their car was later recovered in a Chapellin section of the metropolis. Details on the kidnapping were sketchy Monday morning.

Ambassador Carlos Pujalte and his wife, Paloma Ojeda, were not the first crime victims among the diplomatic corps in recent months. In November, Chilean consul Juan Carlos Fernandez suffered a gunshot wound and a beating in Caracas when he was the victim of an “express” kidnapping and held two hours by captors.

Earlier last year, Bolivia’s military attaché and a Mexican diplomat were briefly kidnapped and robbed in the Palos Grandes area, as was the son of the Vietnamese ambassador.

Caracas has become one of the world’ most violent cities in recent years. One civil society group that tracks violent crime counted 19,336 homicides in 2011 in all of Venezuela, up from 7,960 in 2001. “Since 2001, we have added 1,000 more murders every year,” said the group.

As for kidnappings, another victims advocacy group said a 2010 survey found that there were 16,917 victims in the year ended July 2009, several times the number reported in neighboring Colombia. The government’s official numbers acknowledge roughly one-tenth that number.

According to recent polls, crime is the most important issue for most Venezuelans, a trend that could cause trouble for President Hugo Chavez in his reelection bid in October. Opposition candidates have made crime and their approaches to reducing it prime issues in the primary campaign that culminates Feb. 12 with the nomination of Chavez’s chief opponent.


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--Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul

Photo: Crime is expected to be a top issue among voters as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, shown at a gathering Friday, runs for reelection this year. He is holding the country's constitution in his hand, as he often does at public events. Credit:  David Fernandez / EPA

Think kidnapping is bad in Somalia? It's worse in Mexico

Somalia is a hot spot for kidnapping, as the rescue Wednesday of two hostages by U.S. Navy SEALs has spotlighted. But Mexico, Afghanistan and Venezuela are even worse, according to a company that tracks threats across the world.

Somalia and Kenya together ranked ninth in the world for kidnapping foreigners from October to December of last year, with two kidnappings a month, the Britain-based company AKE found. (Somali waters, where piracy has been a persistent problem, ranked fifth, with 13 crew members taken a month.)

It may seem surprising that a private company is gathering these statistics. Taryn Evans, an analyst at AKE, said that governments do release data on kidnapping, but they are often skewed for political reasons. Even if governments don’t fudge the numbers, many kidnappings are never reported.

The results from official sources aren't so believable: Canada had the highest kidnapping rate in the world as of 2009, according to the most recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime data. So to get better information, the British company uses on-the-ground experts to track kidnappings.

Here are its most recent rankings for the worst kidnapping spots in the world:

  1. Mexico 
  2. Venezuela
  3. Afghanistan/Pakistan
  4. Colombia
  5. Somali waters
  6. Gulf of Guinea waters
  7. Philippines
  8. Sahel region
  9. Somalia/Kenya
  10. Iraq
  11. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  12. Nigeria
  13. Sudan/South Sudan
  14. Yemen


Details of Somali rescue emerge

Somalia raid shows extent of U.S. reach

A young Somali lured into a life of death

-- Emily Alpert

Photo: A woman hides her face behind a screen door where she lives in secret far from her ancestral home. She and her family fled their remote ranch near the U.S.-Mexico border after members of the  Beltran-Leyva drug cartel kidnapped her brother and took over her house. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Chavez closes Miami consulate in response to expulsion

Hugo chavez
REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In his State of the Union speech before Venezuela's National Assembly on Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the closing of his country's Miami consulate in retaliation, he said, for the Jan. 6 expulsion of Consul Livia Acosta, whom the U.S. declared persona non grata for allegedly discussing cyber attacks on U.S. government agencies.

However, in highly polarized Venezuela, Chavez opponents saw electoral politics at work in the consulate's shuttering.

Several critics said on their Twitter accounts Friday that the closing will make it harder, if not impossible, for the estimated 77,000 Venezuelans who reside in South Florida and who are registered to vote -- the majority of whom are thought to be Chavez opponents  -- to cast their ballots  in Venezuela's presidential election in October.

Although he described Acosta's expulsion as "hasty and abusive," Chavez told Assembly members that he would not play tit for tat.

"Allies have recommended that I expel U.S. diplomats who are in this country. I am not going to respond in such a way," Chavez said. "I know there are many functionaries here from that country who aren't conspiring."

The presidential campaign is heating up, and the primary election among opposition candidates to determine an opponent for Chavez will be held Feb. 12.  One of the five candidates is Assembly member  Maria Corinna Machado, who approached Chavez as he entered the congressional building to tell him that, next year, a woman would be wearing the presidential banner.

 "If one of you wins the election, I will be the first one to recognize it," Chavez told Machado. "I ask the same of you."

Chavez also said that one of his principal accomplishments in 2011 was to "lower tensions" with neighboring Colombia, noting that he has had several meetings with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "We are disposed to have good relations with all countries, including the United States."

He also said he has beaten cancer, that his health is good and that his puffy appearance is related to his jogging 40 minutes each day and regularly lifting 160-pound weights.


Iranian president expected to visit Latin America

Venezuela to pay Exxon Mobil only $255 million of ruling

Cyber attacks strike networks in Brazil, revealing vulnerability across Latin America

-- Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrives at the National Assembly for his State of the Union address in Caracas on Jan. 13. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press 








Iranian president expected to visit Latin America

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
REPORTING FROM QUITO, ECUADOR, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans a four-nation tour of Latin America beginning Sunday in an apparent effort to show he is not a universal pariah despite increasing tension between Tehran and the West.

The tour, whose complete itinerary has not been made public, is expected to begin in Venezuela and  include visits to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.

Tension between Iran and the U.S. and its allies increased after a November report by the United Nations' nuclear inspection agency included serious concerns about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, including generating electricity.

President Obama on Saturday signed a defense bill that includes new penalties against financial institutions that do business with the Islamic Republic’s central bank.  Iran, meanwhile, has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil channel, if U.S. and European measures limit its oil exports.

A pledge by the Pentagon to preserve shipments of non-Iranian oil through the strait provoked a warning  Wednesday from Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi that the U.S. aircraft carrier John Stennis now on exercises in the region should stay away from the strait, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil is shipped.

Ahmadinejad was expected to visit Venezuela, with which Iran has signed a number of trade deals, including joint ventures to produce tractors, bicycles and housing, in September.  That visit was canceled because of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s treatment for cancer.

In recent years Iran has sought to strengthen trade ties in the region, particularly with members of the alternative trade bloc called Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, which was created by  Chavez to counter U.S. commercial influence in the region.

The Iranian leader then proceeds to Nicaragua to attend the swearing-in of President Daniel Ortega for a second term on Jan 10. He goes to Cuba afterward and finally to Ecuador, which expects to sign various energy and construction deals, according to recent comments by Trade Commissioner Majid Namjoo.

Political analyst Michel Levi, a professor at Simon Bolivar Andean University in Quito, said Wednesday that the Iranian leader’s trip is a demonstration of power in one of the few regions that in recent years has put out the welcome mat for him.

"Iran has not had this kind of open door before in a region that has traditionally been linked to U.S. foreign policy," Levi said. "He is saying, 'We have here countries that agree with us.' "


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Iran naval chief says closing gulf to oil traffic would be easy

-- Cristina Munoz and Chris Kraul

 Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Dec. 23. Credit: Karen Minasyan / AFP/Getty Images

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has cancer


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina has become the latest Latin American leader to face cancer, officials announced Tuesday.

Fernandez has thyroid cancer and will be undergo surgery Jan. 4, government spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro said (link in Spanish). It was detected last week and convalescence is expected to last three weeks. The spokesman said the cancer has not metastasized nor spread to her lymph nodes.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo have all been diagnosed with cancer, as have former leaders Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Chavez's case is the most serious, with questions looming over his bid for reelection next year.


Latin American leaders coping with cancer

Soybeans now rule the range on Argentina plains

Argentina's Fernandez sworn in for second term as president

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is seen at her Dec. 10 inauguration after her reelection. Credit: Alejandro Pagni / AFP/Getty Images




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