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

Heating help came from Citgo

Some of the people on American Indian reservations in Montana got help with home heating this winter as Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company, expanded a U.S. assistance program active on the East Coast.The company provided about $1.5 million for heating in Montana.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes coordinated the assistance, which tribal policy analyst Teresa Wall-McDonald described as apolitical even though President Bush and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez have been harshly critical of each other.

The assistance "concentrated on the needs of the communities," Wall-McDonald said. "There were no political discussions." Judi Houle, energy assistance director at the Rocky Boy's Reservation, said Chavez "relates to us as an indigenous people."

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Venezuela, China Create $6B Energy Fund

Venezuela and China created a US$6 billion (euro4.5 billion) fund on Monday to boost energy cooperation and finance joint development projects between the two countries.
During a televised speech, President Hugo Chavez said the fund "will provide the fuel for the acceleration of new bilateral development projects," including two joint ventures for the exploration and production of heavy crude in Venezuela's Orinoco Basin and three oil refineries in China.

The fund _ aimed at increasing Venezuelan oil exports to China from 150,000 to 800,000 barrels a day _ was part of a series of agreements signed following a meeting between Chavez and Li Changchun, a top-ranking member of China's ruling Communist Party, at the presidential palace.

"We have brought bilateral relations to a strategic point," Chavez said. "I don't think China has make a decision like this with any other country in half a century. We must thank them for their trust."

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Venezuela Seizes Private Farmland to Raise Cattle

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez said the government seized 16 private farms and ranches it considers unused, and plans to use most of the land to raise cattle for meat and milk production.
Venezuela took over about 330,000 hectares (800,000 acres) in at least four states, and will convert the land into ``social property, which everyone owns,'' Chavez said.

``This is an attack by the state and the people on large land holdings,'' Chavez said today in Barinas state during his weekly television show. ``How can the country develop if we don't put this land to work?''

The land seizures are part of Chavez's plan to install a socialist economic and political model in Venezuela. Last month, the government nationalized the country's biggest private telephone and electricity companies, and plans to take over four heavy-oil fields run by foreign companies by May 1.

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Is Hugo Chávez Mr. Misunderstood?

He roams Latin America, hurling insults at President Bush, sneering at the United States as the enemy "empire" and spending billions in oil money to undermine Washington wherever he can.

To many Americans, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez seems a Latin wild man. But to the millions of Venezuelans who adore him, he is the first leader who genuinely cares for the nation's poor majority, a welcome departure from politicians who traditionally catered to the elite.

"I think God sent him. I think he's the reincarnation of Simón Bolívar. He's with the poor," says Omaira Perez, 60, referring to the 19th century general who liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule.

This larger-than-life figure may, however, be more vulnerable than he appears. There are early signs that Chávez, even as he dominates regional politics, is losing ground at home and elsewhere in Latin America.

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Venezuela to offer CANTV stock buy-out

Venezuela will offer to buy out stock in CANTV next week, expecting to take a share of 60 to 70 percent in the country's biggest telephone company, Telecommunications Minister Jesse Chacon said on Wednesday.

He told the Reuters Latin American Investment Summit in Caracas that Venezuela expects it would move to delist CANTV's American Depository Shares after taking the majority interest.

The move would be part of President Hugo Chavez's wide-ranging nationalization program. The leftist leader is taking over swathes of the economy which he defines as strategic, such as oil projects and power utilities.

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Venezuela consumerism grows amid socialist rhetoric

Plastic surgeons are performing nips, tucks and breast implants at a record pace. BMWs are being snapped up from the sales lots. And sleek new shopping malls are springing up among the high-rises in Venezuela's capital.

Although President Hugo Chavez is urging Venezuelans to adopt more ascetic socialist values, a culture of consumerism is flourishing as an oil boom surges through the nation's economy.

Shoppers are buying up everything from cellphones to Scotch whisky at a rapid clip as the economy benefits from high world oil prices and banks compete for clients by cutting consumer loan rates in half.

Venezuelans bought 343,000 automobiles last year, a 50 percent increase over 2005."Everything is selling - sport utility vehicles, pickups, buses, everything," said Jorge Garcia Tunon, who runs one of the leading auto showrooms in Caracas. "The demand is impressive. The market has grown like crazy."

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What We See in Hugo Chávez

THE fervent welcome that greeted President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his visit to Argentina a week ago was inexplicable to some Argentines and left others indignant. Many here tend to mistrust populism and demagoguery, finding them redolent of Peronism. But even among the wary, a window of hope has opened, with Mr. Chávez as its symbol.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Juan Perón’s time. And it was the expansive waters of our own broad river that defined the vectors of force last weekend. For once, the tensions in the American hemisphere flowed on an east-west axis along the Río de la Plata — which means “River of Silver” and by extension, very appropriately in this case, “River of Money.”

The struggle was about energy, both concrete and metaphorical, and equally combustible in both forms. Across the river in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, the presence of President George W. Bush caused red-hot passions to flare, along with sizable protests like those he faced in Brazil. In Buenos Aires, my city, on the opposite bank of that river of money, red abounded as well, though in our case it had a very different connotation. Red was the color of President Chávez’s jacket and of many of the flags brought by the masses who flooded into a stadium to hear the president of Venezuela speak.

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Venezuela to Give Currency New Name and Numbers

Of all the startling measures announced by President Hugo Chávez this year, from the nationalization of major utilities to threats of imprisonment for violators of price controls, none have baffled economists quite like his venture into monetary reform.

First, Mr. Chávez said the authorities would remove three zeroes from the denomination of the currency, the bolívar. Then he said the new bolívar, worth 1,000 old bolívars, would be renamed the “bolívar fuerte,” or strong bolívar.

Finally, at the behest of Mr. Chávez, the central bank said this week that it would reintroduce a 12.5-cent coin, a symbol of Venezuela’s prosperity in the 1960s and 1970s before freewheeling oil booms ended in abrupt devaluations, after three decades out of circulation.

Mr. Chávez champions these ideas, which will take effect in January, as ways to combat inflation, which in recent weeks crept up to 20 percent, the highest in Latin America. Officials blame “hoarders” for shortages of basic goods and price increases for food on the black market. Mr. Chávez says the renaming and redenominating the currency will instill confidence in it.

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Hugo Chávez Is Tied to Giuliani Firm

Rudolph W. Giuliani’s law firm has lobbied for years on behalf of an oil company controlled by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, a strident critic of President Bush and American-style capitalism.

Bracewell & Giuliani, the firm based in Houston that Mr. Giuliani joined as a name partner two years ago, handles lobbying in the Texas capital for the Citgo Petroleum Corporation of Houston. Citgo is the American subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company that Mr. Chávez controls.

Mr. Giuliani’s duties at his law firm do not include lobbying. But the financial relationship with a company affiliated with one of the most outspoken critics of the United States potentially exposes Mr. Giuliani to new scrutiny as he campaigns to become the Republican nominee for president in 2008.

Mr. Chávez has used his country’s oil wealth to lure fellow Latin American leaders away from alliances with the United States. In recent years, he has called Mr. Bush a “donkey,” a “drunkard” and a “coward,” blamed him for a failed 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela and allied himself with Fidel Castro.

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Giuliani Law Firm Lobbies in Texas for Chavez-Controlled Citgo

Rudolph Giuliani's law firm lobbies for Citgo Petroleum Corp., a unit of the state-owned oil company controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the U.S.'s chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere.

Bracewell & Giuliani LLP registered to lobby for Citgo in Texas on April 26, 2005, less than a month after the former New York mayor joined the firm and became a name partner, state records show. Citgo renewed the contract in 2006 and 2007 and pays the firm $5,000 a month to track legislation. Giuliani doesn't lobby, the firm says.

The law firm's representation of Citgo comes as Chavez's relations with the U.S. have grown increasingly hostile. He has called President George W. Bush a ``devil'' and a ``madman'' and staged a mass, anti-American rally in Buenos Aires during Bush's trip to Latin America, which ends today.

Patrick Oxford, a managing partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, said Giuliani, a Republican presidential hopeful, has no dealings with the Venezuelan-owned oil company. ``He has not seen hide nor hair of Citgo,'' Oxford said.

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Venezuela's Cabezas Says Inflation Will Slow in April

Venezuelan inflation, the highest in Latin America, may slow in April as tax cuts on consumer goods begin to take effect, Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas said.

Value-added tax cuts and a measures not yet announced will help Venezuela slow inflation to meet the central bank's 12 percent target by year-end, Cabezas told the state news agency, without detailing the government's plans.

Annual inflation reached 20.4 percent in Venezuela in February, as soaring government spending pumped cash into the economy and exchange controls trapped money in the system.
``Prices are going to fall a little bit in March because they cut the value-added tax,'' Miguel Octavio, head of research at BBO Financial Services in Caracas, said in a telephone interview. ``But that doesn't mean inflation will slow for long. It's temporary, it's a one shot deal.''

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Chavez goes on counter-tour to Bush trip

Venezuela's firebrand leader said Friday that President Bush's Latin American tour was nothing more than an attempt to improve America's image, dismissing pledges of U.S. aid as a cynical attempt to "confuse" the region.

President Hugo Chavez, who complained last week that Bush's tour was meant to divide Latin America and isolate his leftist government, launched a counter-tour of his own, arriving late Thursday in Buenos Aires. He said the U.S. leader only recently "has discovered poverty" in the region.

"I believe the chief objective of the Bush trip is to try to scrub clean the face of the (U.S.) empire in Latin America. But it's too late," Chavez said of recent Bush pledges of aid. "It seems he's just now discovered that poverty exists in the region."

In an interview with Argentine state television Channel 7, Chavez promised his scheduled soccer-stadium rally Friday night in Buenos Aires "will be confrontational. I believe you have to point out the contrasts. If he says 'Yes,' we say, 'No!'"

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Latin American Publics are Skeptical About US—But Not About Democracy

President Bush’s effort to show Latin Americans that “you have a friend in the United States of America,” may be a hard sell during his five-nation tour of the region: A majority of Latin Americans view the United States unfavorably, recent multinational surveys show, and most disapprove of the Bush administration’s foreign policies.

But though the U.S. government’s image needs burnishing in Latin America, the region does not appear to embrace the radical change espoused by some anti-American nationalists. Most view themselves as political moderates and do not look very favorably on the United States’ arch-rival in the region, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

Moreover, Latin American democracy appears to have strengthened in recent years. Majorities in most Latin American countries embrace democracy as the best form of government, rejecting the idea that authoritarianism might sometimes be preferable.

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Venezuela Disavows 1980s-Era Bonds

The plot would seem to come right out of a novel in which the reader does not know whom to believe.

A group of investors from Columbus, Ohio, spends $100 million in 2004 to buy zero-coupon bonds — debt that pays interest at maturity — from a Venezuelan state bank that went bankrupt in the 1980s. A few months earlier, in October 2003, Venezuela’s solicitor general ruled that the bonds were valid. But when the investor group tried to redeem the debt, it could not, and learned only later that the solicitor general had reversed herself in December 2003.

That is the basic story line in an international financial dispute that is playing out in Federal District Court for Southern Ohio. The investor group, Skye Ventures, is suing Venezuela for its refusal to honor the bonds, which it says are now worth as much as $1 billion.

The dispute over the bonds, which bear the name of an extinct state agricultural development bank, the Banco de Desarrollo Agropecuario, or Bandagro, has not recently been discussed in public by the government of Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez rarely lets any issue involving the United States pass.

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Venezuela Closes Coca-Cola Offices on Tax Breach

Coca-Cola Femsa SA's operations in Venezuela will be forced to close for three days as the government penalizes Latin America's biggest soft-drink bottler for allegedly breaking tax rules.
Venezuela's National Tax service shut Coca-Cola plants and administrative offices, agency spokesman Wilmer Silva said today in a telephone interview from Caracas. Mexico City-based Coca- Cola Femsa said in a statement that the closure will be for two days and will affect the company's headquarters and distribution centers, not its plants.

The agency, known as Seniat, is considered the most efficient arm of President Hugo Chavez's government after collecting record tax revenue by cracking down on evasion and increasing levies on foreign oil companies. Analysts say the agency is applying tax laws selectively to intimidate companies or keep them compromised by the state.

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PDVSA Bond Sale Will Bolster Venezuela's Bolivar, Diaz Says

Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA's planned $3.5 billion bond sale will bolster the currency in unregulated trading, Banking Superintendent Trino Diaz said.

The bolivar's current exchange rate in the unregulated market of about 4,100 per dollar doesn't reflect the strength of the Venezuelan economy, Diaz said in a telephone interview from Caracas. He cited record foreign reserves, annual economic growth of more than 10 percent and high oil prices as reasons the bolivar should be stronger.

The black market rate is 48 percent below the official rate of 2,150 per dollar. Venezuelans turn to the unregulated market when they can't get government authorization to buy dollars at the official rate.

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U.S. sends aid to Bolivia flood victims, but Venezuela pledges millions more

A U.S. cargo plane delivered medicine and supplies Monday to Bolivia's flood-ravaged eastern lowlands, yet American aid was dwarfed by a $15 million pledge from regional rival Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is planning a tour Saturday of the flooded areas, where a rainy season supercharged by El Niño has killed 41 people, driven thousands from their homes and triggered an outbreak of dengue.

International aid continues to arrive in Trinidad, whose outlying neighborhoods have been underwater for weeks. Bolivian officials warned Monday that floodwaters would continue to swell rivers on their way toward the Amazon.

The $1.1 million U.S. donation included vaccinations, pumps, towels and fresh water, as well as cash to help repair the region's washed-out highways and a donation to the local Red Cross branch. Monday's delivery brings total U.S. flood aid to $1.5 million.

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Venezuela to compensate Total, BP for oil field

Venezuela said it had reached a $250-million deal to compensate Total and BP for an oil field it seized from them in April, but said it would not make the compensation in cash.

Speaking at the signing of the deal, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez pegged the compensation slightly lower than the $262 million that a government official had given earlier.

Venezuela seized the Jusepin field after the companies failed to agree to terms under which the field would be operated as a "mixed company," with state oil company PDVSA holding a majority stake.

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Venezuela: Chavez warns of assassination plots

President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday that his government is redoubling efforts to detect assassination plots, calling US diplomat John Negroponte a "professional killer" and saying he believes enemies - including the CIA - are out to kill him.

Chavez said Venezuelan officials have intelligence that associates of jailed Cuban anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles also are involved in plotting to assassinate him.

He said the death plot idea has "gained weight" due to various factors, including the recent appointment of Negroponte, the former director of national intelligence, as deputy to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Who did they swear in ... there at the White House as deputy secretary of state? A professional killer: John Negroponte," Chavez said.

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Exxon Mobil hands over Venezuelan project

Exxon Mobil plans to hand operations of a multibillion-dollar oil project to the Venezuelan state before a May 1 deadline imposed by President Hugo Chavez, industry sources said Thursday.

Chavez this week signed a decree for the government to take a majority stake in four heavy crude upgrading projects in the Orinoco basin by May 1 as part of a nationalization drive toward Cuba-inspired socialism.

The move shows Exxon (Charts), the world's largest company, complying with Chavez's order to cede control of the Cerro Negro project despite doubts over whether private companies will in fact meet Chavez's ambitious deadline. Energy authorities in 2006 extended an initial deadline to take control of oilfields operated by private and foreign oil companies, which operated the fields for three months as negotiations continued.

Exxon Mobil has always been expected to take the toughest line with Venezuela, according to industry analysts, who have cast doubts over whether PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company, has the technical capacity to run the complex operations valued at an estimated $30 billion.

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Chávez loans squeeze IMF from region

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is squeezing the International Monetary Fund out of Latin America, the region that once accounted for most of its business.

IMF lending in the area has fallen to $50 million, or less than 1 percent of its global portfolio, compared with 80 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, Chávez has used his oil wealth to lend $2.5 billion to Argentina, offer $1.5 billion to Bolivia and hold $500 million out to Ecuador.

Chávez, 52, is promoting what he calls a ''socialist'' alternative to the Washington-based IMF and its biggest shareholder, the U.S. Treasury. The timing couldn't be worse for the IMF, whose global clout is diminishing as countries from Uruguay to the Philippines pay their debts.

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