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Venezuela Threatens to Expel US Official

Venezuela threatened Wednesday to expel a U.S. Embassy official for allegedly conspiring to defeat a referendum championed by President Hugo Chavez, accusing the diplomat of plotting to sway public opinion.

The allegation comes ahead of a fiercely contested referendum on reforms that would allow Chavez indefinite re-election and help him establish a socialist state in Venezuela. Sunday's vote has generated large pro- and anti-Chavez rallies and Chavez kept the rhetoric high on Wednesday by repeating his charge that Washington is plotting to kill him.

In Caracas, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro showed state television a document that he claimed was written by the unnamed embassy official and was to have been sent to the CIA as part of a plan to help ensure that Venezuelans vote against the proposed constitutional overhaul.

"It's a script from the CIA to try to generate a block of opinion among Venezuelans that would give a sure victory to the 'No' vote," said Maduro. "We will investigate and if it's that way, we'll remove this person from here as a persona non grata."

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Venezuela knows what it's doing

In recent weeks, U.S. policymakers and pundits have warned that a set of constitutional reforms being considered in Venezuela are but a step toward dictatorship.

A little calm, and context, is in order. Since President Hugo Chavez's first election in 1998 and his most recent reelection in 2006, Venezuela has undergone a dramatic revolution in peace and democracy. The Venezuelan government aggressively works to expand political participation, create an equitable and sustainable economy and address long-standing social deficits.

The numbers indicate that the changes are working. The economy has entered its fourth year of consecutive growth, poverty has fallen from 55.1% of the country in 2003 to 30.4% in 2006, and Venezuelans are the second-most-likely population in the region to call their government "very democratic." Venezuela is slowly establishing the basis for a new model of democracy and development -- "socialism of the 21st century," as it has been termed -- one founded on grass-roots democratic participation, a social economy and equality in access to vital services such as healthcare and education.

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Venezuela recalls ambassador amid row with Colombia

Venezuela said Tuesday it was recalling its ambassador to Colombia for consultations following a diplomatic row between the two countries' leaders.

And firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lashed out again at his conservative Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe, calling him "a sad pawn of the (US) empire."

The Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a brief statement it was calling Ambassador Pavel Rondon back to Caracas "because of recent developments and in order to proceed with an exhaustive evaluation of bilateral relations."

The move came after Chavez and Uribe traded bitter verbal blows on Sunday.

Furious that Uribe dropped him as a mediator to secure the release of hostages held by the leftist rebels, Chavez said on Sunday he was putting bilateral relations Colombia in "a freezer."

"I don't trust anybody in Uribe's government," the leftist Venezuelan leader added.

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Venezuela Chavez: CNN may be instigating my murder

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Wednesday CNN may have been instigating his murder when the U.S. TV network showed a photograph of him with a label underneath that read "Who killed him?"

The caption appeared to be a production mistake -- confusing a Chavez news item with one on the death of a football star. The anchor said "take the image down" when he realized.

But Chavez called for a probe in an interview on state television, where he repeatedly reviewed a tape of the broadcast, questioning why the unconnected photograph and wording were left on screen for several seconds.

"I want the state prosecutor to look into bringing a suit against CNN for instigating murder in Venezuela," he said. "... undoubtedly it is part of the psychological warfare."

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Chávez's 'Socialist City' Rises

Like most ambitious state projects in oil-rich Venezuela, the new city being built in the thickly wooded mountains here began as a whim of President Hugo Chávez's.

Flying in his helicopter north of Caracas over forests filled with monkeys and tropical birds, the president suddenly had a eureka moment -- he would carve a self-sustaining, self-contained city from the wilderness. Chávez envisioned this as the first of several utopian cities, a bold plan reflecting both Venezuela's capacity for undertaking ambitious projects and the president's growing propensity for making all major decisions.

"He told me, 'I want to see if it's possible,' " recalled Ramón Carrizales, minister of housing. "So we began to explore it, and we found vast tracts that could be utilized."

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Venezuelan ambassador downplays Chavez's comments on freezing relations with Madrid

Venezuela and Spain have a common future, the Venezuelan ambassador in Madrid said Monday, downplaying an announcement by President Hugo Chavez that he was "freezing" bilateral relations until King Juan Carlos apologizes for telling him to shut up.

"The two countries have a common future beyond ups and downs," Ambassador to Spain Alfredo Toro said after holding a half-hour meeting with the top Foreign Ministry official for Latin America, Trinidad Jimenez.

Jimenez said that, "after hearing what President Chavez had said," she contacted the ambassador to "ask him if this would affect our bilateral relations."

She said Toro assured there was no change in the countries' bilateral relations.

On Nov. 10, Juan Carlos told Chavez to "shut up" during an Ibero-American summit in Chile after the Venezuelan leader called Spain's former premier, Jose Maria Aznar, a fascist.

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Polarized Politics Again in Venezuela

By: Daniel Hellinger

President Hugo Chávez has called Venezuelans to the polls in support of his quest to construct “21st century socialism.” On December 2 they will vote on two packages of amendments to the 1999 Constitution, which already lays out an innovative blueprint for government, mixing principles of representative government with participatory democracy.

Most of the media has focused on revisions that would expand presidential powers to limit speech and detain individuals during states of emergency and would extend the presidential term from six to seven years, permitting indefinite re-election as well. Mayors and governors would still be subjected to term limits, and critics ask why the national executive should operate under different rules. Although the bar would be raised modestly, Venezuelans would still have the right to petition and force a recall election after the midpoint of a presidential term is reached.

The emergency provisions are not radically different from those found in many other constitutions and were added by the chavista-controlled National Assembly because of the complicity of the media in the short-lived coup of April 2002. Some chavistas worry that the broader emergency powers might be turned against them someday.

Political violence is rising, with the international media too quickly believing accounts laying blame on government supporters and failing to report attacks on pro-Chávez demonstrators. In this polarized climate the contest once again becomes revolves around Chávez and less on the issues. A large block of voters (roughly 40 percent) identify with neither side, but their votes have usually broken favorably for the president. More likely enough Venezuelans will feel compelled once again to support Chávez, but his margin of victory may be narrower than in recent years. Rejection of one or both sets of reforms cannot be ruled out, however, especially since retired General Raul Baduel, a hero to chavistas for his actions to defeat the coup of April 2002, has spoken out strongly against the reforms, equating them to a coup.

The referendum comes at a time when neo-cons and anti-Castro figures entrusted with Washington’s Latin America policy are seizing on Venezuela’s economic and diplomatic accords with Iran as pretexts for intervention. These militarists darkly warn of Iranian “terrorists” using Venezuelan territory for safe haven. Increasingly, they feed a compliant media “analyses” painting Chávez as “crazy” or, worse, a bloody tyrant. As the end of Bush’s term nears, we can expect them to ratchet up the propaganda machine against Venezuela.

Provisions ensuring equal representation of women on party ballots, outlawing discrimination, and giving the vote to young people have attracted scant attention in the media compared to coverage of changes to the presidential term, emergency powers, and new articles dealing with forms of property.

Echoing opposition voices, the international media wrongly presume that the amended constitution threatens private property. Private property in fact is given equal status to forms of state or collective ownership of the national oil company, cooperatives, micro-enterprises, co-managed or worker managed firms, etc.

The most ambitious parts of the reform are those attempting to redesign the “geometry of the state.” These articles create a new branch of “popular power” consisting of councils composed of representatives (voceros, or spokespersons, is the preferred chavista term) of local, grassroots community organizations that will directly allocate funds for projects. These councils will be organized on the level of “communes” within municipalities; their funds will come directly from the executive, bypassing mayors, governors, and state and municipal legislatures.

Why this change? President Chávez hopes through this mechanism, and through the re-organization of his supporters in the new Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to strengthen direct, “protagonistic” democracy, which in his view and that of many of his supporters has been repeatedly co-opted by opportunists and professional politicians. The communal councils and grassroots alternative economic structures will have to co-exist with capitalism and the political institutions of representative democracy, but over time they are to expand their presence and influence, flowering eventually into “twenty-first century socialism.”

Observers of Venezuela can easily find reason to be optimistic or pessimistic about this project. Several of the government “missions” in areas of health care, urban land reform, cooperatives, sanitation and water have produced inspiring examples of participatory democracy at the grassroots. However, corruption and cronyism continues to plague the cooperative movement, the subsidized "Mercal" markets, and the administration of community grants. Politicians with personal connections to the government can displace genuine grassroots councils merely by obtaining certification of themselves as “authentic” representatives. Venezuelan socialism will for the foreseeable future be less about democratizing control over the means of production than about democratically distributing a bounty that springs from the subsoil -- oil.

Parmalat sells milk processing plant to Venezuela

Italian dairy group Parmalat has sold a milk processing plant to the Venezuelan government, Parmalat said on Wednesday, amid nagging shortages of milk in the South American nation.

Venezuela this year has suffered periodic shortages of basic food products such as milk and eggs, and recently confiscated 125 tonnes of powdered milk from a Venezuelan plant run by Switzerland's Nestle.

Parmalat on Tuesday signed an accord to sell its 1 million liter per day facility in western Venezuela to a state-owned corporation for an undisclosed sum, the company said, adding it had been in talks over the deal for two years.

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Spain Seeks to End Venezuela Tension

Spain on Thursday sought to end an escalating dispute with Venezuela that started when Spanish King Juan Carlos told Venezuela's president to "shut up" during bad-tempered exchanges at a summit meeting.

Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said "fewer gestures and more action" were needed to ease tensions, a day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned he was carefully watching the actions of Spanish companies in his country.

"Spain will remain serene, firm and will defend its interests without adding any more unnecessary gestures," Moratinos told a meeting with politicians, diplomats and journalists.

The dispute began at a summit meeting in Chile on Saturday when Chavez accused former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of backing a coup that briefly removed him from power in 2002 and repeatedly called Aznar "fascist."

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Venezuela calls business group 'subversive' for opposing reforms

President Hugo Chavez's government condemned a leading Venezuelan business group on Wednesday for urging voters to oppose the president's constitutional reforms "by all legal means."

Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas said the Fedecamaras business chamber appeared to be calling for resistance beyond opposing the reforms at the ballot box in a Dec. 2 referendum.

Fedecamaras, made up of hundreds of thousands of business members, has traditionally been anti-Chavez and is strongly against reforms that would let him run for re-election indefinitely. The chamber called the proposed changes "illicit, invalid" in a statement Tuesday, urging Venezuelans to prevent their passage "by all legal means possible."

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Brazil's Petrobras pulls out of plans to develop Venezuelan natural gas field

Brazil's state-run oil company has dropped plans to participate in the Mariscal Sucre natural gas project in Venezuela, the company said Tuesday.

Petrobras Chief Executive Sergio Gabrielli decided the project was not advantageous to the company, said a press officer for Petroleo Brasileiro SA who declined to be identified, in accordance with company policy.

"Petrobras withdrew for technical and economic reasons," the press officer said.

Petrobras and Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PdVSA, had planned to jointly develop Mariscal Sucre project, which Petrobras said was slated to cost between $2.5 billion (€1.7 billion) and $3 billion (€2 billion). But the two companies never signed a binding agreement.

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Chavez proposes OPEC sell oil cheaper to poor countries

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed OPEC should come up with a plan to sell oil to poor countries at dramatically lower prices than those paid by wealthy nations.

Chavez said late Tuesday that he will ask members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries at a summit in Saudi Arabia this weekend to consider a plan to aid poor countries struggling with rising oil prices.

"I would sell oil to a rich country at US$100 (€68.50), and to a poor country perhaps at US$20 (€14)" a barrel, Chavez said. "That breaks with the schemes of capitalism. ... OPEC could do it, although there are hard positions on it, but I'm taking the issue to discuss it."

He said Venezuela is setting an example by selling oil under preferential credit terms to various Latin American and Caribbean countries. But he suggested that with world crude prices near record levels, oil producers all have a moral obligation to help the neediest countries with below-market prices.

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Amid flap, Venezuela's Chavez warns on Spanish banks

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday things "will not go well" for Spanish banks if Madrid heightens tensions in a diplomatic flap over the country's king telling him to shut up.

King Juan Carlos asked Chavez "why don't you shut up" at a summit in Chile over the weekend after Chavez interrupted a speech by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

The leftist who had used the meeting to rail against conservative ex-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, has said the rebuke is reminiscent of Spanish colonial rule in Latin America.

"Spanish investment in Venezuela is not indispensable for us, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, Banco Santander ... we don't need them," Chavez said at a news conference.

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Spain's king to Chavez: 'Just shut up'

Spain's King Juan Carlos won praise back home on Sunday after telling Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to "just shut up" before storming out of an Ibero-American summit.

Spain's monarch was applauded by Spanish media for his angry reprimand Saturday of Chavez, after the Venezuelan leader described a former Spanish prime minister as a "fascist" and launched into a wide-ranging tirade.

"The king has put Chavez in his place in the name of all Spaniards," the centrist El Mundo newspaper said, noting that it was "an act without precedence."

It said the monarch's rebuke was "something that should have been said to him (Chavez) a long time ago."

The Venezuelan president responded Sunday by challenging the king, asking if he had advance knowledge of a failed coup against Chavez in 2002.

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Venezuela president kicks off reform vote campaign

Huge crowds cheered President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela's capital Sunday as he kicked off a referendum campaign to further his power-consolidating socialist reforms -- a drive that has sparked deadly protests.

Thousands of people dressed in red filled the city streets as Chavez passed on the back of a truck to officially launch his push for a yes vote in the December 2 referendum on the controversial constitutional reforms that would expand his powers.

"On December 2, when night falls, we will present to the world another great victory ... the victory of the 'yes'" vote, Chavez told the crowd.

"Of all the referendums, I have no doubt this coming one is the most important," he said. The "great objective is to approve the constitutional reform. Approve it so resoundingly that there is no doubt the great majority of Venezuelans say yes."

Supporters of all ages and from all corners of the country, many wearing caps and t-shirts with the slogans, "Yes, with Chavez," watched as he paraded with his vice-president, several ministers and lawmakers, before speaking from a platform.

Venezuela's National Assembly on Friday approved by a large majority the series of controversial constitutional reforms. The assembly is packed with Chavez supporters after opposition parties boicotted the 2005 parliamentary election.

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The Perils of Petrocracy

Who holds the world’s oil? You might assume it’s in the hands of big private oil companies like ExxonMobil. But in fact, 77 percent of the world’s oil reserves are held by national oil companies with no private equity, and there are 13 state-owned oil companies with more reserves than ExxonMobil, the largest multinational oil company. The popular perception in the United States is that if leaders of oil countries nationalize their oil, they are bucking a global trend toward privatization. In reality, nationalized oil is the trend. And the percentage of oil controlled by state-owned companies is likely to continue rising, mainly because of the demographics of oil. Deposits are being exhausted in wealthy countries — the ones that exploited their oil first and generally have the most private oil — and are being found largely in developing countries, where oil tends to belong to the state.

Nationalization is also a political trend in some regions, mainly Latin America, where the populist presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador have made it part of their discourse. They are led, of course, by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. He has made private producers accept state control of their operations. When they wouldn’t, as in the case of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, he simply nationalized their holdings. Chávez has also asserted his control over Venezuela’s state oil company, which before him operated very much like a private, profit-driven enterprise.

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Venezuela's Chavez warns opposition could be denied protest permits

President Hugo Chavez said his government could deny permits for opposition-led protests because of violence during demonstrations against proposed constitutional amendments that would let him run for re-election indefinitely.

"The next time they announce one of these marches, we'll have to evaluate whether to grant permission," Chavez told thousands of supporters during a rally Sunday in favor of the reforms.

He accused his opponents of planning to spur widespread political upheaval ahead of the Dec. 2 referendum on the 69 proposed constitutional changes.

"We're not going to allow them to fill Venezuela's streets with blood," Chavez said.

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Chavez Backs Off Up-or-Down Vote on New Constitution

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will seek to break up 69 proposed changes to the constitution into separate blocks for voter approval, abandoning an earlier plan to put them all into a single up-or-down ballot.

While he still supports a single vote on his initial ideas -- such as eliminating term limits for the president and cutting the work day to six hours -- changes added by the National Assembly, such as guaranteeing gay rights, cutting the voting age to 16 and eliminating due process in states of emergency, may be best voted on separately, he said today in a speech.

``These proposals could well be voted on in blocks, as the constitution requires,'' Chavez said at an event celebrating the anniversary of his state-sponsored women's organization.

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