Venezuelan Vice President delivers State of the Nation speech while Chavez remains in Cuba

By IAN JAMES and VIVIAN SEQUERA | AP | JANUARY 16, 2012

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro took the place of ailing President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday by delivering a short speech and turning in a state-of-the-nation report amid legal debate about his legitimacy.

Maduro submitted the report in writing from Chavez’s government while the president remained in Cuba undergoing treatment after his fourth cancer-related surgery. Opposition politicians argued that the annual speech should have been postponed because the president is supposed to deliver it, and about a dozen walked out in protest.

Maduro announced during the speech, a day after visiting with Chavez in Cuba, that the president designated former vice president Elias Jaua as the new foreign minister. Maduro had kept the foreign minister’s post after his appointment as vice president in October.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the naming of Jaua as foreign minister should be reviewed because it was unclear under what authority the vice president was acting when such powers belong to the president alone.

Only a portion of the opposition’s representatives walked out of the National Assembly session.

Reflecting critics’ charges of heavy Cuban influence in the political events unfolding in Venezuela, one of the legislators who left, Maria Corina Machado said: “The government of Venezuela today is in Cuba, and that’s in violation of the constitution.”

Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez dismissed the opposition’s allegations that the government was acting illegally by going ahead with the special legislative session.

“There’s no constitutional controversy,” Ramirez told reporters, calling the politicians who walked out “the most extremist sector of the far right.”

It was the second time in less than a week that Maduro has presided over an event that would normally have been led by Chavez. Maduro says Chavez remains in charge as president, though it remains unclear when the president might be well enough to address Venezuelans or return home.

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Venezuela tries to keep it together without Chavez

By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | JANUARY 7, 2012

Venezuela’s acting President, Nicolás Maduro, returned to his country Thursday after visiting Cuba, where Hugo Chavez was admitted last month to have surgery. Maduro continued the government’s official policy of not revealing details about Chavez’ health status while affirming that the nation is united behind the so-called Chavismo.

After five days in Havana, Maduro avoided talking about Chavez’ health when he appeared in public at a coffee factory but said that Venezuela is experiencing tough days. The vice-president said that now more than ever Venezuelan’s are together, which he labeled as a response to the information published in recent weeks about divisions within the Venezuelan government due to the prolonged absence of their president. Some media and many social network accounts even announced that Chavez had died. The Mail Online published an article citing that Chavez is alive just because he is connected to life support machines.

“We are united more than ever, Maduro said. We’ve sworn before Commander Chavez that we will be united with the largest loyalty in history,” Maduro asserted in the presence of the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, with whom Maduro maintains a tense relationship, and the Minister of Energy and Petroleum, Rafael Ramirez, another member of the executive leadership reluctant to Maduro. The vice-president also ensured people that the President will return to the country “sooner rather than later”.

“We have one single transition and it has been going on for at least six years and President Hugo Chavez is the commander of the Bolivarian revolution,” Maduro said in a ceremony in a nationalized company. “Today we have an economy in transition to socialism,” Maduro said in his first official act after traveling to Cuba last December 29 December.

Meanwhile, Cabello has endorsed the “revolutionary unity” as a top priority after the reelection of Chavez. The President of the National Assembly has warned the opposition that it will have to “wait for 2000 years” before they can cause fractures within the ‘chavismo’. “We have no doubt, we will not let any effort be wasted. Everyday there will be more revolution. Do not let yourselves be manipulated by rumors from the opposition,” he said.

On the state of Chavez, Maduro has merely reiterated its willingness to continue as head of government, which has been report number 26 on the president’s health. “President Hugo Chavez is leading the country, he is the first worker. Chavez is a man of the people who became the first soldier and worker of the Fatherland”, he said. “We arrived in Havana after visiting President Chavez taking him all the love of the Venezuelan people,” he said while being flanked by the full cabinet. Maduro has asserted that Chavez is “aware” of the situation and has again praised his “fighting spirit”. Maduro traveled to Havana with the State Attorney General, Cilia Flores, and other members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

On 12 December, Chavez underwent a “complex” surgery, which lasted six hours, where an international medical team extirpated a tumor in the same area in which another tumor had been removed. Since the last operation, Chavez has not appeared in public, nor has the government released any image or recording.

Back in June 2011, when he was diagnosed with cancer in the pelvic area, the president of Venezuela, underwent three surgeries – not counting the last one -, four cycles of chemotherapy and six of radiotherapy. Throughout 2012, Chavez faced sharp criticism from the opposition for having medical treatment in Cuba and in Venezuela as well as his prolonged absences from the country. The secrecy surrounding his cancer treatment triggered speculation about the true state of health of the president too.

Chavez won the presidential elections on October 7, earning his fourth consecutive term. However, the cancer predictably came back and is now threatening continuity in the Palace of Miraflores, so he asked his supporters to support the Vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, as his successor, in case “something happens”.

The deadline for Chavez to return to office is January 10, the day that he will have to be sworn in as president. Should this act not materialize if he is not able to make the trip back to occupy office, new elections will have to take place within 60 days. Although this scenario is denied by the Venezuelan government, Chavez’ health is very delicate.

The Venezuelan president’s situation is difficult, after undergoing a fourth operation for cancer relapse, as stated by the Uruguayan Senator Lucia Topolansky, wife of President Jose Mujica. The situation of the president of Venezuela is “complex” and the situation in general “rather unpredictable,” said the lawmaker to Unoticias.

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Will the ‘Revolution’ continue in Venezuela?

By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | DECEMBER 10, 2012

The long time Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chavez feels that his time as chief of the government is coming to an end, so he has officially named Vice-president and Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, as the man who should occupy his post.

Hugo Chavez seems to have assumed that the cancer he suffers from will not allow him to complete or even the fourth six-year term to which he was elected on 7 October. Given this situation, Chavez addressed Venezuelans on Saturday to anoint Vice President Maduro as his successor. Minutes earlier, Chavez had announced that he would be subjected to a fourth surgery to treat a cancer that was diagnosed back in June 2011.

Chavez explained the situation of his illness: “Due to the presence of some symptoms my medical team decided to run new tests. Unfortunately, the tests revealed the presence of cancer cells in the same area affected before. So, it is absolutely necessary to submit a new surgery. ”

If the president does not survive the operation, the Venezuelan Constitution states that the vice president should take over the presidency until new elections are due. Under this assumption, Chavez said: “Nicolas Maduro not only should end the period, as mandated by the Constitution, but it is my firm opinion that he has the skills to be re-elected in the following presidential elections”.

It is the first time that Chavez openly discussed the possibility of his death and ordered his followers what to do in case he dies during or after the surgery. “I ask all the support of the people and of all streams, civil, military, under these circumstances. All support, first for the revolutionary government at this juncture and the support and unity to the decisions that have to be taken. Today we have a country, make no mistake. ”

Since being diagnosed with cancer last year, Chavez had refused to reveal the severity of their disease and the organs of the body that have been affected by it. So far, Chavez has undergone three operations, two of them to remove two separate malignancies, and received radiotherapy and chemotherapy sessions. This Friday he returned to Venezuela after spending nine days in Cuba, where he received an alternative therapy called “hyperbaric oxygenation”.

After the fourth re-election of Chavez, Nicolas Maduro has become the strong man of the Revolution. In Venezuela, he has been Foreign Minister since 2006 and has been in charge of the presidency during Chavez’s most recent trip. Maduro was a bus driver and union leader and is recognized as loyal and friendly.

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Venezuela chooses more of the same pain

By FRANK BAJAK and IAN JAMES | AP | OCTOBER 8, 2012

President Hugo Chavez put to rest any doubts about his masterful political touch in winning a third consecutive six-year term after a bitterly fought race against a youthful rival who has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition.

The state governor who lost Sunday’s presidential vote, Henrique Capriles, had accused the flamboyant incumbent of unfairly using Venezuela’s oil wealth to finance his campaign as well as flaunting his near-total control of state institutions.

Still, he accepted defeat as Chavez swept to a 10-point victory margin, the smallest yet for him a presidential race. This time, the former army paratroop commander won 55 percent of the vote against 45 percent for Capriles with more than 90 percent of the vote counted.

Chavez will now have a freer hand to push for an even bigger state role in the economy, as he pledged during the campaign, and to continue populist programs. He’s also likely to further limit dissent and deepen friendships with U.S. rivals.

Chavez spent heavily in the months before the vote, building public housing and bankrolling expanded social programs.

“I think he just cranked up the patronage machine and unleashed a spending orgy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

But Shifter also noted the affinity and gratefulness Venezuela’s poor feel for Chavez. “Despite his illness, I still think he retains a strong emotional connection with a lot of Venezuelans that I think were not prepared to vote against him.”

“They still think that he’s trying hard even if he’s not delivering what he promised, that he still has their best interests at heart,” Shifter said. “That’s the political skill that he has. He hasn’t lost that touch.”

Chavez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness.

Tensions were high Sunday night as announcement of the results were delayed.

Finally, fireworks exploded over downtown Caracas amid a cacophony of horn-honking by elated Chavez supporters waving flags and jumping for joy outside the presidential palace.

“I can’t describe the relief and happiness I feel right now,” said Edgar Gonzalez, a 38-year-old construction worker.

He ran through crowds of Chavez supporters packing the streets around the presidential palace wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape and yelling: “Oh, no! Chavez won’t go!”

“It’s time now to sweep away the squalid ones,” said another elated supporter, Ignacio Gonzalez, using a description of the opposition Chavez employed during campaigning.

“It’s time to get them out of governor’s and mayor’s offices. The next battle is in December,” when state and municipal elections will be held, added the 25-year-old student, who wore a red shirt that wedded the images of Chavez, Jesus Christ and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Capriles posed the strongest challenge yet to Chavez, who won by a 27-point margin in 2006 and by 16 points when he was first elected in 1998.

“I will continue working to build one country,” said the wiry, 40-year-old grandson of Holocaust survivors who unified and energized the opposition while barnstorming across the country.

He said in his concession speech that he rejects the idea of two Venezuelas divided by ideology and class.

Capriles had vowed to address violent crime that has spun out of control, streamline a patronage-bloated bureaucracy and end rampant corruption, but his promises proved inadequate against Chavez’s charisma, well-oiled political machine and legacy of putting Venezuela’s poor first with generous social welfare programs.

Yet with a turnout of 81 percent, Chavez only got 551,902 more votes this time around than he did six years ago, while the opposition boosted its tally by 2.09 million. Chavez appeared to acknowledge the opposition’s growing clout.

“I extend from here my recognition of all who voted against us, recognition of their democratic weight,” he told thousands of cheering supporters from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace.

Venezuela Holds American Ship for Arms Trafficking

FORBES | SEPTEMBER 7, 2012

The Venezuelan government has seized a U.S. flagged ship and detained its captain for more than a week.

Since August 29 the ship Ocean Atlas has been at port in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where it docked to unload a cargo of equipment. Yet after four hours in port, the ship was boarded and searched by armed security personel, and the captain was detained on suspicion of trafficking in arms or drugs. The captain has been identified as Jeffrey Michael Raider, 45, of Texas.

The rest of the crew of 15 Americans has remained on board under guard. According to a well-placed source arrest warrants have been issued for all of the crewmembers, who are to be taken off the ship for questioning.

Incredibly, my Forbes colleague Jeff Bercovici has been in touch over email with one of the crewmen, Russell Macomber, who has managed to post updates to his Facebook account while under detention.

In a sardonic tone, Macomber even relayed that when Venezuelan authorities raided the Ocean Atlas they stole cartons of cigarettes, ate the crew’s ice cream and let their dogs defecate on the deck. Macomber writes that he would like nothing more than an airdrop of Budweiser. (Read Jeff’s post and Macomber’s account here.)

Officials at the ship’s operator, Intermarine, did not immediately respond to Forbes’ requests for information. Nor did officials at American Maritime Officers, which is believed to have provided the crew for the ship. A spokeswoman at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington said she would look into the incident.

A spokesman for the Seafarers Union confirmed the seizure to Forbes and said, “The SIU is working feverishly to help resolve this situation and to ensure the safety of all mariners aboard the Ocean Atlas. We are staying in touch with the crew and will continue doing so.”

A U.S. Embassy official in Caracas also confirmed the incident to Reuters earlier today.

The seizure of the ship could become an international incident if not resolved soon. A month ago Venezuela detained a U.S. citizen entering from Colombia. President Hugo Chavez accused the man of being a mercenary and part of an “imperial” plot to oust him. So far there has been no public comment from Chavez about the Ocean Atlas detention.

The 12-year-old Ocean Atlas is one of a very small number of U.S.-flagged heavy-lift vessels. Its cranes can lift 400 tons and its giant holds are ideal for hauling hauls boats, generators, and oilfield equipment. It often moves cargoes under contract with the U.S. government or for projects financed by the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which requires U.S. flagged ships to carry any cargoes it has financed.

A decade ago the ship carried oilfield equipment to Iraq. And according to a backgrounder on Globalsecurity.org, it also made a special trip to Libya:

The Department of State requested that the vessel be quietly diverted to Libya, where under special security cover, the vessel was loaded in its entirety with equipment from Libya’s nuclear and other WMD programs arsenal. They included specialized centrifuges used in the processing of uranium to weapons grade, equipment from a uranium conversion facility, and Libya’s five SCUD-C long-range missiles. The cargo was discharged at an undisclosed U.S. East Coast port. The Libyan cargo move was truly a spur-of-the-moment operation.

The ship became the first U.S. vessel to dock in Libya in 20 years.

So was Ocean Atlas carrying weapons this time, on another top secret U.S. mission? No, says Macomber; nothing but three rifles in case they needed to ward off pirates.