Working to provoke discussion and provide up-to-date information and analysis on US-Venezuelan relations, politics, policies, and culture.

Editorial: Don't go Citgo

Every time the United States clashes with a foreign nation, no matter the reason, we can guarantee lawmakers will respond with childishly illogical legislation that seeks to strip some irrelevant cultural icon from American life.

Much like House Republicans who replaced French fries with "freedom fries" in protest of France's opposition to the war in Iraq, Boston City Councilor Jerry McDermott last week proposed to turn off the lights on the landmark Citgo Sign.

Go to full editorial.

7-11 drops Citgo.

Washington Post article on 7-11 dropping Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, from its stores.

The Devil and Mr. Bush

The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel writes, "Love him, hate him, fear him, revere him, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an elected world leader whose fiery criticisms of US foreign policy can't simply be ignored or ridiculed.

Maybe Chavez did himself, his larger alternative agenda and his country a disservice by treating the UN podium as the set of his weekly TV show at home. His "The Devil is Mr. Bush" riff--an obviously allegorical one if you ask me--delivered with an actor's dramatic flair and a good deal of humor risked drowning out other important messages he did deliver. For example, how many know that he laid out an innovative four-point program to renew and reform the UN--and spoke eloquently about how and why this "era is giving birth to a heart"?

Go to full article.

Castro rips U.S. over Venezuela

The Miami Herald published this article on Fidel Castro's comments regarding Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro's alleged harrassment in a New York airport by security officials.

Vice President Rangel invites Bolton to Venezuela for free speech pitch reported that Venezuelan Executive Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel has challenged US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton to come to Venezuela and say what he has to say about President Hugo Chavez Frias.

Go to full article.

President Chavez's Speech to the United Nations

Representatives of the governments of the world, good morning to all of you. First of all, I would like to invite you, very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it.

Noam Chomsky, one of the most prestigious American and world intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, and this is one of his most recent books, 'Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States.'" [Holds up book, waves it in front of General Assembly.] "It's an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what's happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet.

Go to full speech.

Iran Who? Venezuela Takes the Lead in a Battle of Anti-U.S. Sound Bites

In the end, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran lost the much-hyped war of words waged against President Bush at the General Assembly. A stealth opponent swooped in and took the prize.

Speaking on Wednesday from the same lectern Mr. Bush had occupied the day before, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela announced, to gasps and even giggles: “The devil came here yesterday, right here.

Go to full New York Times article.

Blogging from Washington, Return from Caracas

The delegation (pictured here with Venezuela's Vice-President Rangel) is back from Caracas. We have a few more observations about our meetings on Monday. And soon, we’ll talk about our ultimate objective: starting a civil dialogue between leaders in Venezuela and the United States.


On the day the delegation met Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), 88 political organizations were in final meetings to determine the ballot positions of 23 candidates for the presidency of Venezuela.

The CNE has enforcement and regulatory responsibilities for auditing the electoral system, testing voting machines, enforcing the rules that prohibit civil servants from electioneering at work, and providing the candidates with a small measure of free broadcast time which they can air their messages. CNE will also be determining the participation of both national and international election monitors for December’s presidential vote.

For Venezuela’s sixteen million registered voters – in a highly polarized political climate – the members of the CNE are key actors in guaranteeing that the upcoming ballot for president is free and fair, in perception and fact.

As Ms. Lucena told us, “Elections are a big investment in democracy.” Members of the delegation asked whether the CNE had sufficient resources to enforce the law. “People have to get accustomed to the rules and their enforcement,” she said. This is an election to which the world will be paying close attention.


The delegation had the honor and privilege of meeting with the Vice-President of Venezuela, Dr. Jose Vicente Rangel. The delegation discussed with the Vice-President the purpose of the delegation and the goal of the Center for Democracy in Americas for its Venezuela program: breaking through the confrontational state of U.S.-Venezuela relations and bringing people together.

The Vice-President indicated his support for this goal, and made a number of observations. He said:

1. Venezuela is seeking a normalized relationship with the United States
2. Politics aside, aspects of U.S.-Venezuelan relations (e.g. trade) go quite well
3. Venezuela would like to broaden cooperation with the United States, and mentioned the topics of interdicting drugs and stopping terrorism
4. Venezuela would like to put the relationship on better footing, and would pursue the discussion of delicate issues in private
5. U.S. actions in the hemisphere have damaged its image and its efficacy in dealing with the nations of the region

As you might expect, the Vice-President predicted that President Chavez would win the election in December. But, he asked, why should President Chavez begin his next term with an anti-U.S. mandate?


Our meeting with Vice President Rangel reminded us of the urgency of getting moving this dialogue in a more positive direction. In our posting to come, we will talk about how we can approach this project.

Blogging in Caracas, Day Four

During our final fully day of meetings in Caracas, the delegation had exceptional meetings with the Vice President of Venezuela, Jose Vicente Rangel, the chair of the National Election Council, a group of foreign ambassadors, and journalists from Venezuela's radio and television sectors. With travel before us, and some internet connectictivity problems upon us, we are planning a full post later today.

Blogging in Caracas, Day Three

A visit to Project Alcatraz: Today the delegation met four former gang members in a town called El Consejo, about fifty miles outside of Caracas in Revenga County, and heard an amazing story about how they are turning their lives around.

Revenga has about 26,000 residents. Like other places in Venezuela, it is poor: there is sixty percent unemployment in the area; 15% of residents suffer from malnutrition; 65% of the children are born to unwed mothers; and 60% leave school before receiving a high school diploma. These are places where some of the excluded and dispossessed who lead the hardest lives in Venezuela become its hardest-core criminals. Many of the rest are sentenced to living lives with no identity and no future.

Six years ago, during a campaign in Venezuela, when all levels of government were up for reelection, some candidates advised Venezuela’s poor that if they needed something, they should just take it. In Revenga, 479 families crossed the border onto the Hacienda Santa Teresa, the site of Venezuela’s most esteemed rum producers, and occupied land that had been privately held for more than 200 years.

Alberto Vollmer, scion of the family that runs Santa Teresa, took the lead in dealing with the land invasion crisis. He could have done nothing. He could have enlisted the police to apply force, or hired private security to remove the families himself. Instead, he did something unexpected and uncommon in Venezuela: he engaged the land invaders in a negotiation, and treated the people occupying his land with dignity and respect.

Vollmer’s negotiation led to a landmark agreement. The occupiers stayed, but rather than building a slum, they agreed to work with Vollmer and plan a new community. The state government donated infrastructure, the central government provided credit to build housing, and the residents donated their labor to build their homes.

Vollmer explained to us that his family had engaged in a social philanthropy for years, assisting local residents on projects relating to education and health. But the advent of the settlement on his land provided their work with a new focus that he believes will really address, at least locally, the social inequality faced by Venezuela’s poor, with pragmatic solutions that are sustainable over time. Vollmer’s family and company have literally become instruments for the community to change and improve itself.

Their projects focus on housing, training for the unemployed, education, security (anti-crime efforts), values, and giving residents a vision for the future. The Santa Teresa foundation is helping the community create a sustainable tourism industry in the region, where residents will be trained for real jobs, artists will have assistance in building markets for locally produced goods, and scores of people who would have faced a future of anonymity and idleness are acquiring an identity and a sense of purpose.

As Vollmer explained, the crime effort started when a Santa Teresa employee was badly assaulted, and the firm’s security chief was able to identify and track down the assailants. Vollmer met with the young gang members who committed the crime, and offered them a deal: work a job at the hacienda for three months for no pay and apologize to the victim, or face incarceration at a local prison. Once again, Vollmer’s approach, rejecting force or confrontation and favoring negotiation paid off. The gang members worked and they liked it, and Vollmer built on what happened with this incident to do outreach with the gangs in Revenga whose activities were driving the ferocious local crime rate.

Vollmer started a three-tiered program for gang members which they now call Project Alcatraz. Upon joining the program, they enter a boot camp which pays no wages. The second phase offers training for up to two years with a stipend. The third phase helps them find work and pays a monthly salary.

Vollmer has steadily brought more and more gang members in. He’s involved four gangs and engaged them in an honest and transparent dialogue. He reached out to their families, girlfriends and wives. They’ve sought substitute economic activities for the gang members so that renouncing crime becomes a real option, not an unthinkable economic sacrifice. He got them to think about their future.

Vollmer is reality-based; he runs a $50 million business. But he speaks clearly and powerfully about this unique project. He’s enlisting the criminals to fight crime. He’s channeling the energy of the gang leadership to make useful changes in their communities. And crime is now down 97% in communities where gang activity was at its most intense.

These creative and brave efforts have captured the attention of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, and international organizations, like the Inter-American Development Bank, which are hoping to replicate their success in dealing with crime and gangs in Central America and elsewhere.

The gang members who spoke with us talked passionately about Project Alcatraz. The project, one said, “has pushed us to have a different life.” Another said, “Before the project, my life was in a terrible hole. The program,” he said, “educated us as human people.”

This encounter did not take place at a community center or at a scene of high security. Our conversation occurred at the Santa Teresa hacienda, where the rum and the Vollmer family fortune are made. Alberto Vollmer greeted the four young men like brothers, and they passed easily into a rainy afternoon when our discussion came to an end.

Blogging in Caracas: Day 2

Blogging from Caracas.

Today, the delegation waded deep into the information stream, hearing from experts on the related issues of Venezuela’s economy, the upcoming election, and the structure of public opinion.

Economists often quarrel over competing pieces of data and different interpretations of what the data mean. While some are positive about Venezuela’s future, today we heard from economists with a pessimistic perspective of Venezuela’s economic prospects.

First, the good news: With oil prices at record levels, Chavez has the financial capacity to run social missions that provide essential services to the poor (e.g. literacy training, health care, and new business and job creation based on experimental enterprises). Chavez can claim some economic success and can point to eleven quarters of economic growth since the trough of the Venezuelan downturn in 2003. The political ramifications are obvious; the poor see themselves as being recognized by the government for the first time in the nation’s memory and they support Chavez accordingly.

Venezuela is a relatively wealthy country, but it suffers from the “resource curse.” Oil production does not create a diversified economy, nor does it create a lot of jobs. Income inequality has not seemed to budge over the last eight years. The president’s political opponents use growth figures dating from 1998 to the present to make their case of virtual economic stagnation, and to say that nothing has really changed.

Venezuela’s public sector has grown in ways that some economists believe are unsustainable. Add the public budget to the use of certain monetary resources from the central bank and they say the government is consuming nearly half of the nation’s $150 billion GDP on public expenditures. That can work when oil sells at a global market price of over $70 per bbl when Venezuela’s production costs are at $6 per barrel. But those conditions may not prevail over the long term.


Opposition groups fear that Chavez is consolidating his power politically, but they also are frank to say that this consolidation is taking place within the context of an open society – a country with a boisterous press, opposition political parties, not a police state.

The nation’s major electoral monitor believes that voter registries for the national election are capable of sustaining an honest election. The questions then turn to whether there is a unified opposition that is willing to participate (political parties abstained in recent parliamentary elections in an unsuccessful gambit to discredit Chavez) and whether they have a substantive and political program that breaks with the past and offers Venezuelans a real alternative.

Experts told us that the 2006 presidential election could be competitive. Voters are critical of the Chavez government in several key areas: they are insecure when it comes to crime; they are dissatisfied with the performance of the economy in terms of job creation; they have problems with the delivery of government services which, they say, are hampered by corruption; and they oppose Chavez using Venezuelan resources to win friends and influence governments abroad.

And yet, Chavez has earned a form of electoral impunity. Strong segments of the Venezuelan electorate like Chavez. They say he helps the country, helps the poor, has acted to create social missions that deliver needed services, and that he communicates honestly. When government is blamed for failures – too much crime, inflation, lack of jobs, and the like – it is everyone who is blamed but not Chavez specifically.

Opposition must participate. It must break with past practices. It must develop a positive program and a future-oriented identity. People want order, they want unity, they want equal opportunity, and they want the government to be efficient. A new political leader without ties to the past must emerge in order to make the presidential race in 2006 competitive.

We have more investigations to do. Please continue to read on with us and send us your comments.

Blogging in Caracas

The U.S. delegation to Venezuela touched down in Caracas today, and began its work exploring the opportunities for dialogue.

This is a crucially important time for U.S. – Venezuela relations; we are weeks before a vote in the United Nations which is likely to see Venezuela succeed in its quest – over U.S. objections – to win a temporary seat on the Security Council, and just months away from a near certain victory by Hugo Chavez for reelection to Venezuela’s presidency.

Against this backdrop, the foreign relations between Venezuela and the United States are bilious and destructive. What we hope to explore is the question of whether a constructive channel of dialogue can be created between reasonable men and women of good well in both countries.

We began our search with a wonderfully instructive visit to the headquarters of Telesur – the cable news channel created by Venezuela, Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia – whose headquarters are in Caracas. We met with the senior leadership of Telesur, who had a fascinating story to tell. This channel is devoted to covering global news from the perspective of an integrated Southern Hemisphere. It is non-commercial, and it offers its viewers a perspective unique from the advertiser and subscription supported cable channels of the United States and Europe.

What Aram Aharonian (Director General) and Armando Jimenez (Director of Information) told us is that their coverage is devoted to “forming citizens, not consumers” among their viewership. Their voice, which is devoted to understanding the world from a Southern Hemispheric perspective, is a refreshing and, in ways, radical voice, among the broadcasters and journalists of the region. We were struck by the diversity of opinions in the news content, and the range of nationalities represented in Telesur’s newsroom.

Later, we were privileged to hear the views of Margarita Lopes-Maya, a historian and academic, who talked about the efforts of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, to democratize capitalism in a country that has been riven for decades by deep income disparity and a maldistribution of political power. Venezuela is, to be sure, politically polarized, and Chavez’s efforts to raise incomes among the poor are benefited by the steep increases in the cost of oil. His power, and the longevity of his project, appears utterly dependent on the success of the so-called social missions financed by the current price of petroleum.

We explore these and other issues in the days that follow.