Colombian officials confirmed yesterday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is expected to attend this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The announcement of Chávez’ decision to attend the summit alongside other hemispheric heads of state comes amid intense speculation about the possible deterioration of the Venezuelan leader’s health. Chávez has spent the last few days in Cuba undergoing radiation treatment for his cancer and, according to sources in Colombia, may spend only a few hours at the summit before heading home to Venezuela.
President Chávez at home is facing his most serious electoral challenge since he rose to power in 1998 and may be striving to shore up international support, while projecting an image of strength to observers in Venezuela. The upcoming summit will put major hemispheric issues into the spotlight, such as commercial integration, regional security, monetary policy, and natural disaster relief.
The Obama administration also announced yesterday that the U.S. president will arrive in Colombia on Friday—a day earlier than was originally planned. Senior White House officials have announced that Obama will go to the summit seeking to boost trade and commercial ties—especially in the energy sector—and will likely focus his public statements on the successful passage last year of free trade deals with Panama and Colombia.
From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Helicopter Crash Claims Mexico’s Second Most Powerful Official
Mexico’s Interior Minister Francisco Blake Mora died in a helicopter crash on Saturday en route from Mexico City to Cuernavaca. The accident, which killed seven other people, was ruled a weather-related accident. In 2008, then Interior Minister Juan Camila Mouriño died in similar circumstances: he perished in a plane crash in Mexico City nearly three years to the day from Saturday’s accident. Blake was a powerful force in President Felipe Calderón’s war on drug trafficking, and his loss was a blow to the president’s administration’s war on drugs. Blake was also the fourth interior minister under Calderón, so his death could be a setback for Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) prior to next year’s presidential elections.
López Obrador to Lead PRD Ticket in Mexico
Mexico’s leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) chose Andrés Manuel López Obrador as their candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Known as AMLO, the former mayor of Mexico City narrowly lost the presidential election in 2006. James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz writes that the nomination could actually help the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, since after AMLO’s 2006 loss, “bouncing back is going to be tough for him.” He also believes that current Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard would have been a more viable candidate for the PRD, with larger national appeal.
Security, Drug Trafficking Concerns Colored Michoacan Election
Sunday’s elections in the Mexican state of Michoacan resulted in a victory for the PRI, with the PRI candidate for governor, Fausto Vallejo, eking out a victory over PAN candidate Luis Maria Calderón (sister of the current president). The candidate from the PRD, which has ruled Michoacan for the past ten years, came in a distant third. A piece by Animal Politico evaluates the reasons behind this win, including very high voter concern for insecurity and drug trafficking. Michoacan has become one of the most violent states amid President Calderon’s war on drug trafficking. Those concerned with insecurity generally voted for the PRI, while those concerned with drug trafficking tended to support the PAN.
Many of the 250,000 diplomatic documents and cables leaked on Sunday by whistleblower site WikiLeaks address U.S. relationships with Latin American heads of state. And while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is characterizing the leaks as “an attack on the international community” as well as on American foreign policy interests, Ecuadorian Ecuadorian Deputy Foreign Minister Kinto Lucas has extended an invitation to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to come to Ecuador.
On Tuesday, Lucas told Ecuadorinmediato, “We are ready to give him [Assange] residence in Ecuador, with no problems and no conditions… We are going to invite him to come to Ecuador so he can freely present the information he possesses and all the documentation, not just on the Internet, but in various public forums.”
Venezuela, Argentina and Honduras are the subjects of some of the most noteworthy leaked documents concerning Latin America.
One document was issued one month after the 2008 military coup in Honduras. In the cable, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens calls the ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya “clearly illegal,” and the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti “totally illegitimate.”
Venezuela is the subject of 2,300 of the leaked cables, most of which concern President Hugo Chávez. In a 2009 cable, a French official named Jean-David Levitte called Chávez “crazy” and said that "Brazil was not able to support him anymore." Levitte goes on to say that "Chávez is taking one of Latin America's richest countries and turning it into another Zimbabwe.” The Venezuelan President responded on Monday evening: “Somebody should resign ... I'm not saying [President Barack] Obama, but they should do it out of shame ... It is their empire left naked.”
Argentina was the subject of 2,200 cables. In one exchange in late 2009, Secretary Clinton questions the mental state and decision-making of both President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late-husband, former President Néstor Kirchner.
The whistle-blowing website has also reportedly obtained 2,836 U.S. documents concerning Mexico, but most of those have yet to be released.
WikiLeaks also revealed that the U.S. offered millions of dollars worth of incentives to countries like Slovenia and Kiribati in exchange for taking detainees out of Guantanamo Bay. In an interview with the BBC, Amb. John Negroponte, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Honduras, said today that the release of WikiLeaks cables “will damage [the U.S.’s] ability to conduct diplomacy.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez traveled to Iran on Tuesday to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and discuss energy cooperation. On the agenda: the formation of a joint oil transportation company and the possible construction of petrochemical plants. While Chávez has already traveled to Iran nine times since taking office in 1999, Tuesday’s two-day visit is part of a multinational tour to strengthen Venezuela’s relationships with Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries.
Local Iranian television covered Chávez’ arrival, where he was greeted by Minister of Industry and Mining Alí Akbar Mehrabian. In a televised statement, Chávez reiterated his support for Iran’s controversial nuclear program, and criticized the “unfair sanctions imposed on the people of Iran” by the United Nations. The UN, the United States and many of its allies have said that Iran’s nuclear proliferation program seeks to produce weapon-grade material. Ahmedinijad and other Irani officials maintain that the uranium enrichment program is solely for energy purposes.
Chávez also took the opportunity to defend his own domestic energy agenda, which includes building a nuclear power plant in Venezuela. The plan has attracted widespread criticism from the U.S. in particular. But Chávez has dismissed the remarks as “the same story of the [American] empire and all of its worldwide networks to try to impede the independence of our people.”
Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has accepted an invitation to head Petrocaribe’s newly formed political council, Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolás Maduro announced on Saturday. Minister Maduro said that in his new post, Zelaya would "oversee strengthening of political independence and the defense of 'popular democracy' in Latin America and the Caribbean."
Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan state initiative created in 2005, gives preferential oil prices to 18 Caribbean and Central American nations. The announcement came at a governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) meeting in Caracas, to which Zelaya had traveled from the Dominican Republic (where he is living under exile) to attend.
Zelaya, who was overthrown in a June 28, 2009 coup has been living in self-imposed exile since January 27, 2010, when Porfirio Lobo was sworn in as president.
On Tuesday, Honduras’ Congress approved a decree handed down in December by interim President Roberto Micheletti to end Honduras’ membership in the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas (ALBA), a regional organization started by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Presidential spokesman Rafael Pineda, in an apparent reference to Venezuela, explained that the decision to leave was taken because “some of the countries in the organization have not treated Honduras with the respect it deserves.” Pineda also cited Venezuelan threats during the initial stages of the Honduran coup last year to invade Honduras in support of deposed President Manuel Zelaya.
Honduras joined the regional organization on August 25, 2008, during a meeting between former President Zelaya and President Chávez. However, it was not until October 9 that the membership agreement was ratified by the Honduran Congress—then, ironically, presided over by Mr. Micheletti himself.
A water rationing regime began today in Caracas and may last as long as six months depending on climatic conditions. During this period, residents throughout the Venezuelan capital and other affected cities will go without running water for as long as 48 hours per week.
The rationing is the latest development in the government’s efforts to combat the effects of an unusually dry rainy season, which Venezuelan meteorologists attribute to the effects of the el niño weather phenomenon. Prior government efforts to curb residential water consumption include a campaign by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to promote “revolutionary showers”—3-minute showers he says should include “one minute to get wet, another to soap up, and the third to rinse off and avoid stinking.” The ultimate objective of these initiatives is to cut water use by a total of 20 percent in the next few months.
Critics of the Chávez administration contend that the rationing has less to do with weather patterns than with the nationalization of utility companies and the government’s failure to adequately invest in water-related infrastructure over the last decade.
Residents in cities affected by today’s water rationing have been observed stockpiling water in recent days in anticipation of the shortages. People throughout Venezuela have become accustomed to shortages and rationing in other areas, particularly electricity. According to reports, the country’s electricity challenges have led to an increasing number of shortages and widespread blackouts in recent weeks.
Venezuelan authorities recovered yesterday the body of Jose Luis Arenas, 21, who was abducted and murdered over the weekend in the Venezuelan state of Táchira, near the town of El Pinal. Mr. Arenas is the last of 12 amateur soccer players kidnapped on October 11 by unidentified perpetrators and held for several days before being slain. There was one survivor of the massacre, an 18-year-old boy, who was found alive on Sunday and hospitalized.
The incident has renewed tensions between the Venezuelan and Colombian governments. President Hugo Chávez has alluded that the men may have been spies for Colombia’s state security agency, while spokesmen for the regional government of Táchira have blamed units of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian paramilitary guerilla group. On Monday, Venezuela denied permission for a Colombian government plane to land in Venezuela to repatriate the remains of the dead and despite pleas from Colombian authorities, the Venezuelan government has refused to cooperate with its neighbor on an investigation into the murders.
Colombian officials and family members of the victims contend that they were simply playing a pick-up game of soccer. William Bello, the father of one of the dead, has said that his son was a street vendor who worked near the Colombia-Venezuela border crossing and had never had a run-in with the law. This most recent massacre raises the number of Colombians killed in recent weeks in Venezuela to at least 20 people.