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Venezuela's Chavez backs oil chief despite criticism

President Hugo Chavez endorsed his oil chief on Sunday despite repeated criticism from the opposition and some government supporters over his management of the industry, particularly over a lack of rigs.

"In the face of so many attacks against (state oil company PDVSA chief) Rafael Ramirez, I will make clear here that Rafael will be around a good while yet in PDVSA," Venezuela's president said on his weekly TV program that he hosted from the Orinoco oil belt.

"We have a tremendous colleague at the head of PDVSA and I call for support for him," Chavez added. "Carry on Rafael, you are a revolutionary."

Ramirez has been one of Chavez's closest aides in recent years, leading the president's drive to nationalize the OPEC nation's oil industry, which provides the bulk of the income that the leftist leader lavishes on the majority poor.

In recent weeks, Ramirez, who is also Venezuela's energy minister, has come under increasing pressure and there had been some local media speculation Chavez could replace him.

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Obama says Clinton has foreign policy like Bush's

By Steve Holland, Reuters
Democrat Barack Obama accused Hillary Clinton on Thursday of backing a foreign policy toward hostile nations no different than U.S. President George W. Bush's in an escalation of their war of words this week.
Obama, an Illinois senator, fired back at New York Sen. Clinton for calling him "irresponsible and naive" for saying during a CNN/YouTube debate on Monday that he would be willing to meet without preconditions the leaders of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela during his first year in office.
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Conoco feels the Chávez effect

Hugo Chávez's moves to take control of foreign oil investments in Venezuela caused a 94 per cent drop in ConocoPhillips' earnings in the second quarter, as the company warned that future production would be hit because of the loss of assets in the country.
Conoco, the third largest US oil producer, said its net income had been hit by a $4.51bn charge after it decided to walk away from its projects in the oil-rich Orinoco belt, rather than accept the terms being forced on it by Mr Chávez.
The Venezuelan president announced a month ago that the national oil company PDVSA was taking control of the reserves, worth at least $25bn, in the Orinoco region, in eastern Venezuela.
ExxonMobil, the world's biggest oil company, also failed to agree to terms with Venezuela. BP, Statoil, Chevron and Total had previously accepted the new terms.
Conoco was particularly badly hit by the move, as its operations in Orinoco were valued at about $6bn and account for about 10 per cent of its reserves.
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Venezuela's Chavez vows to continue Castro's 'struggle' after Cuban leader's death

President Hugo Chavez promised his close friend and ally Fidel Castro on Thursday that he would continue the Cuban leader's decades-long fight against U.S. imperialism once the aging revolutionary icon has passed away.
"Fidel, I assume the commitment of continuing your struggle, your endless battle. I assume it. We, your children, assume it," said Chavez, a former paratroop commander who is steering Venezuela toward socialism.
Since taking office in 1999, Chavez has forged strong ties with communist-led Cuba while emerging as one of Latin America's most outspoken critics of Washington's foreign policy in the region.
Castro, who turns 81 next month, has not been seen in public since emergency intestinal surgery almost a year ago forced him to temporarily cede power to a provisional government headed by his younger brother.
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Political Clashes Shake Venezuela's Strained Oil Industry

Venezuela's national oil company is being shaken by claims of corruption and by internal dissent, indicating fissures within the institution largely responsible for financing President Hugo Chávez's widening array of social welfare programs and foreign aid projects.

The problems at the company, Petróleos de Venezuela, have been compounded by a rare acknowledgment by Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister and president of the company, that it cannot hire enough drilling rigs, raising concern over its ability to halt declines in oil production.

"Our sovereignty is at risk if we allow Petróleos de Venezuela to remain in this situation," Luís Tascón, a pro-Chávez lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. "We cannot allow this company to remain an indecipherable black box." Mr. Tascón has summoned Mr. Ramírez to the National Assembly to respond to accusations of corruption against senior executives.

Mr. Ramírez has emerged as a focus of criticism amid claims of illegal deals with oil-services companies on his watch. The attacks on him are viewed as part of a power struggle among Mr. Chávez's supporters, with ideological loyalists clashing with the relatively less radical technocrats in charge of the strained oil industry.

The tension within Petróleos de Venezuela follows other feuds within political institutions under Mr. Chávez's control that began earlier this year when several political parties in his coalition resisted his move to gather supporters into a single Socialist party.

The armed forces also experienced an internal uproar after Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel delivered a speech as he prepared to step down as defense minister this month saying that Mr. Chávez's Socialist-inspired transformation of Venezuelan society should not be contaminated by Marxist orthodoxy.

But the depth of problems within Petróleos de Venezuela, which is responsible for about half of total government revenues and three-quarters of Venezuelan export revenues, illustrates how the feuds within Mr. Chávez's coalition may weaken his ability to carry out his plans.

In comments that jolted global energy markets last week, Mr. Ramírez, the energy minister, acknowledged that Petróleos de Venezuela had hired 40 percent fewer drilling rigs than its target for this year, in part because of new rules requiring contractors to donate 10 percent of the value of their contracts to social welfare projects.

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Chavez: Critical foreigners to get boot

President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that foreigners who publicly criticize him or his government while visiting Venezuela will be expelled from the country.

their visits to Venezuela — and deport any outspoken critics.

"How long are we going to allow a person — from any country in the world — to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?" Chavez asked during his weekly television and radio program.

The Venezuelan leader's statements came after Manuel Espino, the president of Mexico's conservative ruling party, criticized Chavez during a recent pro-democracy forum in Caracas.

Government opponents argue Chavez — a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — is becoming increasingly authoritarian and cracking down on dissent as he steers oil-rich Venezuela toward what he calls "21st-century socialism."

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Chávez popularity cools amid push for socialism

Proposals for the unlimited reelection of President Hugo Chávez, the possibility of establishing a Cuba-like political system and the ''violent'' clash with Washington are rejected by most Venezuelans, according to a new poll unveiled Friday.

The poll by Hinterlaces, a Caracas think tank that carries out surveys and analysis for private clients, also showed that Chávez's popularity has dropped 13 points since November, from 52 percent to 39 percent.

Hinterlaces' figures indicated that the average Venezuelan is increasingly rejecting Chavismo's ideological agenda in key areas such as the rights of private property and the country's shift toward Cuban-style socialism.

''More than a revolution, what Venezuela is living is a process of democratic maturation and the remodeling of its political culture,'' said Oscar Schemel, president of Hinterlaces, which correctly predicted Chávez's landslide reelection in December.

The political interests of today's Venezuelans are ''the opposite of extremist speeches'' not only by Chávez, but also by his radical opposition, Schemel added.

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`Bush has picked right priority for U.S. action'

President Bush wants to make the United States relevant again in Latin America. Last week, he hosted a White House Conference on ''Advancing Social Justice in the Americas'' to highlight a shift in U.S. policy priorities in Latin America.

For the past six years, Washington's limited attention to Latin America has concentrated on free trade, narcotics trafficking and security threats. The president now wants the United States to help its hemispheric neighbors tackle their long-neglected social agendas -- the pervasive poverty, inequality and race discrimination that deprives so many Latin Americans of economic opportunity and basic rights.

Bush has picked the right priority for U.S. action. Some 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty, a figure that has not changed much in a quarter century. No other region of world has a more unequal distribution of income. But the president has not begun to match the thought, energy or resources that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is investing in the social agenda. The administration's proposals so far -- visits by a U.S. hospital ship, increased scholarships, new lending to small enterprises -- are woefully short of well-considered strategy. And the White House's social-justice conclave was designed to showcase the generosity of private groups -- not to set a new U.S. policy course. No wonder most Latin Americans remain skeptical.

Bush should start with a hard look at existing U.S. policies. In one way or another, many of them are already relevant to Latin America's social problems.

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Venezuelan TV Station Heads to Cable

An opposition-aligned TV station forced off the air by President Hugo Chavez will take its programming to cable television while it continues waging a legal battle to regain its broadcast license, the channel's top executive announced Wednesday.

Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, which went off the air on May 27 after Chavez refused to renew its license, will reach viewers via cable beginning on July 16, station executive Marcel Granier said.

"Venezuelans want RCTV, and they will have it," Granier told a news conference. "Until we achieve the goal of regaining our signal we must try to return to the air as soon as possible through alternative means."

Cable reaches fewer than 30 percent of Venezuelan households.

Granier said the priority for RCTV, which was one of the few major privately-owned TV channel that was critical of Chavez's administration, is still trying to return to viewers as a regular network on the open airwaves.

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