Friday, July 24, 2009

A State in Grip of Kidnappers and the Family of Hugo Chávez - The New York Times

Scott Dalton for The New York Times
"This is what anarchy looks like, at least the type of anarchy where the family of Chávez accumulates wealth and power," said Ángel Santamaría, a Barinas cattleman whose 8-year-old son, Kusto, was held for ransom for 29 days.
Published: July 20, 2009
BARINAS, Venezuela — Stretching over vast cattle estates at the foothills of the Andes, Barinas is known for two things: as the bastion of the family of President Hugo Chávez and as the setting for a terrifying surge in abductions, making it a contender for Latin America’s most likely place to get kidnapped.

The New York Times
Barinas is the home region of the family of Hugo Chávez.

An intensifying nationwide crime wave over the past decade has pushed the kidnapping rate in Venezuela past Colombia’s and Mexico’s, with about 2 abductions per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Interior Ministry.

But nowhere in Venezuela comes close in abductions to Barinas, with 7.2 kidnappings per 100,000 inhabitants, as armed gangs thrive off the disarray here while Mr. Chávez’s family tightens its grip on the state. Seizures of cattle ranches and crumbling infrastructure also contribute to the sense of low-intensity chaos.

Barinas offers a unique microcosm of Mr. Chávez’s rule. Many poor residents still revere the president, born here into poverty in 1954. But polarization in Barinas is growing more severe, with others chafing at his newly prosperous parents and siblings, who have governed the state since the 1990s. While Barinas is a laboratory for projects like land reform, urgent problems like violent crime go unmentioned in the many billboards here extolling the Chávez family’s ascendancy.

“This is what anarchy looks like, at least the type of anarchy where the family of Chávez accumulates wealth and power as the rest of us fear for our lives,” said Ángel Santamaría, 57, a cattleman in the town of Nueva Bolivia whose son, Kusto, 8, was kidnapped while walking to school in May. He was held for 29 days, until Mr. Santamaría gathered a small ransom to free him.

The governor of Barinas, Adán Chávez, the president’s eldest brother and a former ambassador to Cuba, said this month that many of the kidnappings might have been a result of destabilization efforts by the opposition or so-called self-kidnappings: orchestrated abductions to reveal weaknesses among security forces, or to extort money from one’s own family.

“With each day that passes,” the governor said recently, “Barinas is safer than before.”

Through a spokeswoman, he declined to be interviewed.

In an election last year marred by accusations of fraud, Adán Chávez succeeded his own father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, a former schoolteacher who had governed Barinas for a decade with the president’s brother, Argenis, the former secretary of state in Barinas.

Another brother, Aníbal, is mayor of nearby Sabaneta, and another brother, Adelis, is a top banker at Banco Sofitasa, which does business with Adán’s government. Yet another brother, Narciso, was put in charge of cooperation projects with Cuba. The president’s cousin Asdrúbal holds a top post at the national oil company.

Politicians once loyal to the president who have broken with him and his family here contend that Mr. Chávez’s family has amassed wealth and landholdings through a series of deals carried out by front men.

One opposition leader, Wilmer Azuaje, detailed to prosecutors and legislators what he said was more than $20 million in illegal gains by the family since the president’s father was elected governor in 1998. But in a brief review of those claims, National Assembly, under the control of Chávez loyalists, cleared the family of charges of illicit enrichment.

“In the meantime, while the family wraps itself in the rhetoric of socialism, we are descending into a neo-capitalist chaos where all that matters is money,” said Alberto Santelíz, the publisher of La Prensa, a small opposition newspaper.

One reason for the rise in kidnappings is the injection of oil money into the local economy, with some families reaping quick fortunes because of ties to large infrastructure projects.

A new soccer stadium, built under the supervision of Adelis Chávez’s at a cost of more than $50 million, is still unfinished two years after its first game in 2007, joining other white elephants dotting Barinas’s landscape. Nearby lies the unfinished Museum of the Plains, intended to celebrate the culture of the president’s birthplace. A sprawling shopping mall stands half-completed after its backers fled a shakedown by construction unions.

More than a decade into the Chávez family’s rule in Barinas, the state remains Venezuela’s poorest, with average monthly household income of about $800, according to the National Statistics Institute. Kidnapping, once feared only by the wealthy, has spread in Barinas to include the poor. In one case this year of a 3-year-old girl kidnapped in the slum of Mi Jardín, the abductor, when told that the only thing of value owned by the girl’s mother was a refrigerator, instructed her to sell it to pay the ransom.

Kidnapping specialists here said the abductors were drawn from two Colombian rebel groups, a small Venezuelan guerrilla faction called the Bolivarian Liberation Front, other criminal gangs and corrupt police officers. Just a fraction of the kidnappings result in prison sentences.

“With impunity rampant in Barinas, how can our governor say with a straight face that people are kidnapping themselves?” asked Lucy Montoya, 38, a hardware store owner whose sister, Doris, a 41-year-old mother of three, was kidnapped in March.

Doris Montoya’s abductors have not freed her or communicated with her family since receiving ransom money in May, Lucy Montoya said, adding, “The government’s handling of this crisis is an affront to our dignity as human beings.”

Meanwhile, new figures show kidnappings climbing to 454 known cases in the first six months of 2009, including about 66 in Barinas, compared with a nationwide 2008 estimate of between 537 and 612. But officials acknowledge that the true figures are probably higher because many cases are never reported.

Here in Barinas, victims seethe over the inaction of the president and his family. “Our ruling dynasty is effectively telling us we are expendable,” said Rodolfo Peña, 38, a businessman who was abducted here last year. “The only other plausible theory,” he said, “is that they are too inebriated by power to notice the emergency at their feet.”

Sign in to Recommend A version of this article appeared in print on July 21, 2009, on page A4 of the New York edition.

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has been caught

The New York Times, 25 de mayo de 2008
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has been caught.
Despite his protestations of innocence, Interpol has corroborated the authenticity of thousands of computer files captured during a Colombian Army raid on a FARC rebel camp in Venezuela. Only a small share of this trove has been released, but it leaves little doubt that Venezuela has been aiding the guerrillas’ effort to overthrow Colombia’s democratically elected government. The Colombian government released documents from the computers that suggest Venezuelan intelligence officials tried to secure weapons for the FARC and that Mr. Chávez’s government offered the rebels oil and a $250 million loan. Information in the files has already led to the seizure of FARC funds in Costa Rica.
Colombia can now take the issue to the Organization of American States, the United Nations Security Council or the International Court of Justice. But it might need further corroborating evidence, as Interpol only certified that the Colombian government did not tamper with the files but said nothing about the veracity of their content. Mr. Chávez has a more important choice to make: he can sink once and for all into the role of regional pariah, to be contained or isolated in the name of regional stability, or he can commit to becoming a responsible neighbor. All of his neighbors, and all Venezuelans, should urge him to choose the latter course.
Responsibility means that Mr. Chávez must halt all aid to the FARC — which long ago chose drug trafficking over political liberation — and use his influence to get the rebels to lay down their arms and join the demobilization process that is under way for Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups.
Mr. Chávez’s posturing as a populist liberator is wearing thin at home, where voters defeated his proposal to overhaul the Constitution so he could stay in power indefinitely. It is also wearing thin abroad, where Mr. Chávez has used Venezuela’s oil riches to meddle in Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua, among others. Latin America’s leaders need to realize that his actions threaten the stability of the entire region and that cheap oil does not lessen that threat. They need to remind Mr. Chávez of the commitment to nonintervention and democratic rule in the Organization of American States charter. And they need to make clear that he has only two possible moves from here: he can become a responsible neighbor or be ostracized in the hemisphere.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

n Venezuela, Faith in Chávez Starts to Wane

It is difficult to understand what is going on in Venezuela, and why Chavez is still on power......
vdebate reporter
Venezuelans waited to buy subsidized food last month in San Antonio de Tachira.
The nation is facing food shortages.
Published: February 9, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — These should be the best of times for Venezuela, blessed with the largest conventional oil reserves outside the Middle East and oil prices near record highs. But this country’s economic and social problems have become so acute lately that President Hugo Chávez is facing an unusual onslaught of criticism, even from his own supporters, about his management of the country.
In a rare turnabout, it is Mr. Chávez’s opponents who appear to have the political winds at their backs as they reverse policies of abstention and prepare dozens of candidates for pivotal regional elections. Mr. Chávez, for perhaps the first time since a recall vote in 2004, is increasingly on the defensive as his efforts to advance Venezuela toward socialism are seen as failing to address a growing list of worries like violent crime and shortages of basic foods.
While Mr. Chávez remains Venezuela’s most powerful political figure, his once unquestionable authority is showing signs of erosion. Unthinkable a few months ago, graffiti began appearing here in the capital in January reading, “Diosdado Presidente,” a show of support for a possible presidential bid by Diosdado Cabello, a Chávez supporter and governor of the populous Miranda State.
Outbreaks of dengue fever and Chagas disease have alarmed families living in the heart of this city. Fears of a devaluation of the new currency, called the “strong bolívar,” are fueling capital flight. While the economy may grow 6 percent this year, lifted by high oil prices, production in oil fields controlled by the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, has declined. Inflation soared by 3 percent in January, its highest monthly level in a decade.
In fact, some economists see a slow-burning economic unraveling playing out in a country flush with oil revenues. But as Mr. Chávez embarks on his 10th year in power, it is becoming harder for him to blame previous governments for the malaise.
This holds true especially in poor areas where voters failed to turn out in support of the president in a December referendum on a constitutional overhaul that would have vastly increased Mr. Chavez’s powers, a stinging defeat from which the president has yet to recover. “I cannot find beans, rice, coffee or milk,” said Mirna de Campos, 56, a nurse’s assistant who lives in the gritty district of Los Teques outside Caracas. “What there is to find is whiskey — lots of it.”
The contrast between revolutionary language and the consumption of imported luxury items by a new elite aligned with Mr. Chávez’s government, known as the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie,” has led to questioning of the priorities of his political movement. “Chávez’s revolution has stalled, but it can move forward if he can solve some problems,” said Daniel Hellinger, a political scientist at Webster University in St. Louis who follows Venezuela. “I don’t envy him the challenge of trying to make the country’s government more effective in people’s daily lives.”
Mr. Chávez highlighted the challenge after his defeat at the polls when he called for a year of “revision, rectification and relaunching.” He issued an amnesty decree for opponents who had been charged with supporting a brief 2002 coup and shook up his cabinet, replacing his vice president and ministers in charge of the economy and fighting crime.
But for each minor policy shift or good economic statistic from the government, Mr. Chávez has stirred deeper anxiety by intensifying threats to expand state control of the economy and society. For instance, Mr. Chávez warned Monday that he would nationalize large food distributors caught hoarding groceries.
Pedro E. Piñate, an agricultural consultant in the city of Maracay, said: “We live in two countries, one inhabited by officials who think they can alter reality by sending soldiers to intimidate citizens. The other country is where the rest of us live in fear of being killed or kidnapped or of our businesses being seized.”
This fear is reflected in a statistic that is illegal to publish in Venezuela: the black-market value of the strong bolívar, or bolívar fuerte, put into circulation at the start of the year to replace the old bolívar. Its value hovers around 5.2 to the dollar according to currency traders here, less than half at the official rate, 2.15.

For other domestic problems, Mr. Chávez’s approach has been equally erratic. After the recent outbreak of dengue fever, which reached into his cabinet to infect Culture Minister Francisco Sesto, the president did not shake up the public health system. Instead, he called for an investigation of claims that the disease may have been altered into a more virulent strain as part of an attack on Venezuela by unidentified enemies.
Enemies of Venezuela have rarely been more threatening than in recent weeks, according to Mr. Chávez, who has elevated a political dispute with President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia to the point of mobilizing troops.
Last month, Mr. Chávez claimed Colombian military officials were conspiring with American officials in Bogotá to kill him. It was the 25th time that Venezuela’s government said that Mr. Chávez was the target for assassination since 2002, according to Tal Cual, a newspaper here.
As these domestic and economic troubles accumulate, Mr. Chávez faces a new test this year in state and municipal elections, with a reinvigorated opposition. Mr. Chávez stands to lose some authority if opponents win just a handful of important states or cities, almost all of which are now controlled by his supporters. Even more unpredictable are the dynamics within the president’s own movement, with insurgent candidacies clamoring to challenge the status quo.
“Chavismo is most vulnerable at the local and state level,” said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Oriente University in eastern Venezuela. “That opens great opportunities for the opposition to erode Chávez’s power and influence, beginning with big gains in the elections held at the end of this year.”
Amid growing calls for debate and the grooming of new leaders in the Socialist Party he created last year for his followers, Mr. Chávez is trying to instill discipline within its ranks. He called for party members to be expelled if they initiated candidacies too soon for coming elections. The rule apparently does not apply to Mr. Chávez, whose bid to remove term limits for the presidency, along with other proposals to transform Venezuela into the hemisphere’s second socialist state after Cuba, was rejected by voters in December.
He mentioned a proposal last month to hold a vote in 2010 to allow him to run for re-election in 2012, when his current term expires. Billboards proclaiming “Por Ahora” — “For Now” — have gone up in the capital, reminding Venezuelans that Mr. Chávez will not give up his quest to reconfigure society.
Mr. Chávez has also not given up on his efforts abroad to deepen alliances with like-minded leaders. For instance, even as Venezuela struggles with a shortage of oil-drilling rigs, the government has sent two rigs to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, is a Chávez supporter.
This foreign aid, once tolerated by Mr. Chávez’s supporters, is emerging as a source of resentment among those left out of the country’s oil boom. “I see Chávez traveling and traveling abroad, and the money ends up somewhere else,” said Jesús Camacho, 29, who sells coffee on the street in Catia, an area of slums here, making about $8 a day.
Mr. Camacho said he had always voted for Mr. Chávez but had recently lost faith in politics. “This situation will be fixed by no man,” he said. “Only God.”

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