Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In Venezuela, Speak No Ill of Hugo

Chavez is getting nuts. He should have been deported when he came to the OAS and called Bush "the devil".
vdebate reporter

Wed Jul 25, 5:05 PM ET
Many foreigners can travel to Venezuela without avisa. But now there's a new requirement once they get there. President Hugo Chavez announced on Sunday that foreigners who publicly criticize his government will be deported. He ordered officials to monitor statements made by international figures visiting the country.
The comments came after the President of Mexico's ruling conservative party criticized Chavez for seeking to do away with term limits at a recent pro-democracy conference in Caracas. "No foreigner, whoever it is, can come here to attack us," Chavez said. "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 no one does anything about it?"
Chavez, who has turbulent relations with the Bush Administration, has never been one to put up with those who disagree with him. He has had notable falling-outs with former confidants and insulted myriad foreign heads of state and their officials for criticizing his policies.
But his newest statementswere ironic, considering that what Chavez labeled a punishable offense in Venezuela is something he himself has done in the United States. Many Americans know Chavez best for calling President George W. Bush the devil at the United Nations last year.
That remark, as well as similar anti-Bush comments made inHarlem on the same trip, occurred on Bush's soil.
[Chavez has also taken to attacking senior Catholic prelates lately. The Associated Press on Tuesday cited an item on state-run news agency website quotingVenezuela's President assailing Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who had been critical of Chavez recently. "Another parrot of imperialism appeared, this time dressed as a cardinal. That's to say, another imperialist clown," Chavez reportedly said.]
Critics say that the Chavez government is becoming less and less tolerant of differing opinions. In late May, it forced opposition-aligned television station Radio Caracas Television off the air by refusing to renew its broadcasting license, and promptly opened an investigation against Globovision, the only remaining channel critical of the President.
The other major privately owned television network, Venevision, has shifted its coverage from critical to favorable, leaving the broadcast landscape largely bereft of independent voices willing to challenge the government.
Chavez counters that his government encourages critical thought. "Let's read, study, discuss, debate. Ideas, ideas and more ideas!" he said on Monday. Indeed, some within government ranks have been more than willing to denounce fellow Chavez allies in recent months.
Pro-Chavez lawmaker Luis Tascon suggested there was corrupt behavior a foot at the state oil company and last week summoned company president and Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez to shed light on the matter in front of the national Assembly.
Also last week, outgoing Defense Minister Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel said, in his farewell speech, that Chavez's beloved "socialism of the 21st century" was avague model that was generating unease.
Vague and undefined as Chavez's model of socialism maybe, he wants everyone to sign up. He said on Sunday that 90% of Venezuelans should support his government, even though nearly 40% voted against him in presidential elections in December.
His government had been fond of saying that it wishes Venezuela had a respectable opposition, rather than the current mishmash of defeated parties lacking proposals. Even that wishful democratic stance may be gone now. OnMonday, Chavez acknowledged that his government wants to ideologize Venezuelan society in order to phase out an "imperialist" way of thinking imposed in the past."
They accuse us of ideologizing and I say yes, of course," Chavez said on Monday. "Who has said thecontrary?" The time to differ with Chavez is over for foreign visitors and may soon be up for his domestic opponents as well.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Political Clashes Shake Venezuela’s Strained Oil Industry

Interesting comment in this article"
“The longer Venezuela’s new partners wait to negotiate with seriousness, the more vulnerable Chávez becomes,” said Roger Tissot, director for Latin America at PFC Energy, a consulting firm in Washington.
Political Clashes Shake Venezuela’s Strained Oil Industry
The New York Times
CARACAS, Venezuela, July 22
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. While difficulty finding drilling rigs is not limited to Venezuela at a time of growing exploration internationally, Petróleos de Venezuela is also grappling with internal labor disputes as the company is strained by plans to create an assemblage of new subsidiaries charged with activities like farming, shipbuilding and manufacturing.
Union leaders, sensing vulnerability among senior executives and complaining that management had reneged on various employment benefits, said they were planning protests at production facilities across Venezuela this week. Work stoppages could make the company’s production difficulties more acute.
Speaking before the National Assembly last week, Luis Vierma, vice president of exploration and production at Petróleos de Venezuela, described the company as being in an “operational emergency.” A company spokesman did not respond to requests for interviews with Mr. Ramírez and Mr. Vierma.Venezuela, with some of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, officially claims to produce almost 3.1 million barrels of oil a day, but institutions like the International Energy Agency in Paris put output at 2.37 million barrels a day, down about 230,000 from a year ago.
Other energy analysts say output problems are potentially even more broadly troubling. The country’s oil exports fell 15 percent while overall production dropped 7 percent in the first quarter of this year, said Ramón Espinasa, a chief economist at Petróleos de Venezuela in the pre-Chávez era and now a respected consultant, citing both the difficulties with hiring rigs and a surge in domestic fuel consumption driven by subsidized prices.
Combined with lower global oil prices during part of this year, Venezuela’s income from oil exports may decline by about 24 percent in 2007, to $45.6 billion compared with $60.4 billion last year, by Mr. Espinasa’s estimate.
Part of the strain on Petróleos de Venezuela relates to Mr. Chávez’s efforts to assert greater control over the oil industry this year, following decrees by the president enabling the takeover of oil projects from companies including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.That has raised fears that employees of those companies who have been critical of Mr. Chávez’s actions could be fired. A report last week in Tal Cual, an opposition daily newspaper, cited documents showing how Petróleos de Venezuela had evaluated the political sympathies of engineers at Sincor, a venture whose control was recently ceded to the government from Total of France and Statoil of Norway.
Several engineers deemed disloyal to Mr. Chávez were fired, according to the report.With newer oil fields in the Orinoco Belt facing high production costs and technical challenges because the oil there is high in impurities, a smooth transition to government control is needed to keep production levels from falling.“We’re finishing a complex process,” Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, said in a telephone interview, referring to the nationalizations.“We remain committed to supplying oil to the United States,” he added.
Venezuela remains one of the leading suppliers of oil to the United States, and the volume of oil bound for the United States has remained steady. Petroleum exports to the United States in April were 1.4 million barrels a day, the most recent figures available from the Department of Energy. Mr. Chávez is betting that new ventures with national oil companies from China, Iran, Vietnam and Belarus will allow Venezuela to lift production. Yet while production costs soar and uncertainty persists as to treatment of foreign investors, companies in most other countries have been hesitant to invest heavily in Venezuela.
“The longer Venezuela’s new partners wait to negotiate with seriousness, the more vulnerable Chávez becomes,” said Roger Tissot, director for Latin America at PFC Energy, a consulting firm in Washington.
So far, Mr. Chávez has not publicly intervened in Petróleos de Venezuela. Instead, he seems to be placing his faith in a recent increase in oil prices, which hit an 11-month high of $78.40 a barrel in London trading last week.
“Oil is going straight to $100; no one can stop it,” Mr. Chávez said last week during a visit to Nicaragua.

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Chavez warns critical foreigners will be expelled

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez has said that foreigners who publicly criticize him or his government while visiting Venezuela will be expelled from the country.

President Hugo Chavez has ordered officials to monitor statements made by foreigners in Venezuela closely.

Chavez on Sunday ordered officials to monitor closely statements made by international figures during 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, 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."

Chavez rejects such allegations, countering that democratic freedoms have been extended since he was first elected in 1998. The former paratroop commander says his government has empowered the poor by giving them increased decision-making authority in politics.

During Sunday's six-hour program, Chavez assured private property owners their rights will be guaranteed under a pending constitutional reform.

Many wealthy Venezuelans fear second homes, yachts or other assets could be seized as Chavez advances his Bolivarian Revolution, a movement named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chavez denies any such plans.

Chavez is expected to present his reform proposal to the National Assembly, which is completely controlled by his allies, in the coming weeks. Few details have emerged from a special executive committee that he appointed to draft a proposal for overhauling the country's charter.

Also Sunday, Chavez announced an initiative to slash the salaries of Venezuela's top public servants. He said no public servant should make more than $7,000 a month. Most Venezuelans make minimum wage -- roughly $250 a month.

Reducing the pay of top officials has become a popular move in Latin America. The presidents of Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica recently cut salaries, including their own, in response to widespread criticism.

In his typically wide-ranging television program, Chavez also said Castro recently warned him to take precautions against possible U.S.-backed assassination attempts.

He said Cuba's 80-year-old "Maximum Leader" gave him a copy of former CIA Director George Tenet's recently published memoir and told him: "'Read it, Chavez, because that is the most perfect killing machine ever invented and I'm a survivor. ... I survived more than 600 [assassination] attempts."'

"The CIA is everywhere," said Chavez, who has repeatedly warned that President Bush could order him killed.

U.S. law has forbidden assassination attempts since the 1970s, and Washington denies the U.S. government has attempted to kill Castro since then


Venezuela's energy minister says state oil company struggling with 'operational emergency'

Finally, the government admits that the state-owned oil industry has problems.

Venezuela's energy minister says state oil company struggling with 'operational emergency'
The Associated Press
Published: July 24, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela: Venezuela's state oil company is struggling with an "operational emergency" because it has not been able to hire enough oil drilling rigs, the country's oil minister said in published remarks Tuesday.

Rafael Ramirez told the El Universal daily that Venezuela's state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, needs to hire dozens more rigs to reach rising production targets.

"There's effectively an operational emergency and the board (of directors) determined this because if we do not accelerate the (oil rig) tender process, a situation is going to arise that could prevent production plans from being reached," Ramirez was quoted as saying.

Tuesday was a national holiday in Venezuela and oil ministry spokesmen were not available to confirm Ramirez's published comments.

Some industry watchdogs have said Venezuela's crude output is falling partly because of the rig shortage. The Paris-based International Energy Agency, which collects and analyzes statistics related to the international oil market, calculates that oil output in Venezuela — a major supplier of crude to the United States — has fallen to 2.37 million barrels a day, down from 2.6 million barrels a day a year ago.

Venezuela claims to be producing more than 3 million barrels a day.

"We hope to reach 3.2 million barrels by the end of the year," Ramirez said.

Venezuela has traditionally hired rigs from foreign companies, including the U.S.-based firms Halliburton Co. and Schlumberger Ltd, but the oil-rich South American nation is gradually moving to take complete control over rig operations.

It has struck a deal with China National Petroleum Corp. to begin assembling drilling rigs in Venezuela, a major part of PDVSA's plan to gain its own rig fleet. Production of the rigs is expected to begin within two years.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Fleeing Chávez, Veteran Oil Workers Flock to Frigid Alberta

Sad!. Many Venezuelans professionals leave our country because of the Venezuelan government hostility. Nice! that these Venezuelans are doing well in Canada!
vdebate reporter

Fleeing Chávez, Veteran OilWorkers Flock to Frigid Alberta
By Joel Millman
From The Wall Street Journal Online
Before he left Venezuela in April for this petroleum outpost in northern Alberta, Freddy Mendez heard tales about bone-chilling winter cold and lumbering moose. Since he's come to town, he's seen two black bears in his neighborhood. Still, the toughest adjustment is the late-night sun. "You get a lot of work done when the sun doesn't set until 11," he says, stifling a yawn. "But it's so hard getting the kids to bed."
The 45-year-old engineer is part of a swelling colony of Venezuelan expats who say they were driven into exile by a hostile government. Many assert they were purged after a long strike in 2002 at Petróleos de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil giant known as PdVSA. More recent arrivals initially found work with private oil companies operating in Venezuela in 2003, but lost their jobs this year when Hugo Chávez wrested control of the companies' holdings. They call themselves the "twice fired."
Frigid, remote Alberta has become one of the world's fastest growing enclaves of Venezuelans, rivaling such warm-weather spots as Weston, Fla., outside Miami; and Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston. There are now 3,000 Venezuelan-Albertan families, up from 800 or so last year. Some Albertans now call Evergreen, a Calgary housing development, "Vene-green" because of the 100 families who have bought split-level homes there, and dangle Venezuelan flags from car rearview mirrors.
The new arrivals are hardly huddled masses. Many are oil-field veterans who have taken positions in Canadian refineries at salaries topping $100,000 a year. Canadian bosses prize the Venezuelans' ability to apply techniques pioneered in South America, where oil deposits in Venezuela's Orinoco region are mined much like Alberta's gooey oil sands.
Other Venezuelans followed their relatives to Canada and found opportunities, including Orlando Morante, who opened a Calgary nightclub, the Conga Room. This past winter, a Venezuelan-born karate instructor led Calgary's delegation to an international martial-arts competition in Tokyo. The new arrivals are frequently bilingual and usually arrive with enough cash to buy into the booming real-estate markets of Calgary and Edmonton.
The loss of so many skilled oil workers has hit PdVSA hard.
Since Mr. Chávez took power in 1999, Venezuela's oil production -- according to U.S. government statistics -- is down to 2.4 million barrels a day, from 3.1 million barrels a day, despite high prices. (Venezuela has consistently accused the U.S. of undercounting PdVSA's production in recent years.)
Alberta's Gain
Venezuela's loss is Alberta's gain. With the province's oil industry perpetually short of skilled labor, Canadian companies recruit overseas professionals. Champion Technologies of Calgary, which has a unit drilling in Venezuela's Orinoco oil region, brought employees north. So did the oil-sands giant, Suncor Energy Inc., which has nearly 100 Venezuelan professionals on its payroll. Jacobs Canada Inc., the local unit of the U.S. engineering company, has sent teams of headhunters to Caracas to conduct interviews, returning with dozens of PdVSA veterans.

After Pedro Pereira lost his job directing Venezuela's petroleum technology center following the 2002 PdVSA strike, he fielded offers to return to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where he had been a research fellow in the 1980s.
But he chose the University of Calgary. Over the past five years, he's received $5 million from the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, a provincial program for scientific ventures, to develop advanced methods of extracting bitumen from oil-sand deposits. Canada's liberal immigration rules also let him recruit colleagues, and Canadian firms often hired the spouses of academics he hired, increasing family salaries.
Remote Fort McMurray, 476 miles north of Calgary, is the easiest entry point for oil families looking for a Canadian haven. There are plenty of unfilled jobs. When oil-sands development began in 1967, the town had just 4,000 people and few paved streets. Now it has 65,000 residents, including 200 Venezuelan families, up from 30 a year ago. Suburban housing developments sprawl toward the heavily forested hills that hug the banks of the Athabasca River.
The Venezuelans do their best to hold on to their home culture, importing chili peppers, which they cultivate in pots set under heat lamps, and making traditional cachapa pancakes with Canadian corn meal, which is much finer than the coarse flour used at home.
The men fill their weekends by playing softball in neighborhood parks where hockey has ruled. Some wear caps and shirts emblazoned with the logo "Gente de Petróleo," or "Petroleum People," the civic organization led by PdVSA managers opposed to the Chávez regime.
St. John's, Fort McMurray's local Catholic parish, now conducts a Spanish-language mass every month. New immigrants from Venezuela pitch in to help the Rev. Gerard Gautier with the liturgy. "They keep saying to me, 'You're doing good, just watch those mispronunciations,'" the cheery Canadian priest says.
Biggest Contribution
Locals say that salsa music may be the Venezuelans' biggest contribution to Fort McMurray's quality of life. Fed up with sunless days, frozen car engines and husbands gone for long shifts at the oil refinery, two winters ago Marifé Valderrama launched Baile Terápia -- Dance Therapy -- in her basement. Wearing tropical spandex outfits and other exercise gear, she and her ladies dance for hours to cumbia, merengue and reggaetón beats. Word spread, and soon natives clamored to join.
Ms. Valderrama, a 31-year-old chemist and former professional dancer, has moved Baile Terápia to the cafeteria at Father Mercredi High School, where she has branched into couples' classes and mommy-and-baby salsa groups. She does salsa consulting on the side.
"I charged $80 to do a bachelorette party for 15 Canadian women," she says. "The wedding was in the Dominican Republic and they wanted to be able to dance when they got there."
Many Venezuelans also flock to tiny Foothills Stadium in Calgary to watch the minor-league Calgary Vipers, which has two Venezuelan ballplayers on the roster. One, outfielder Jorge Tang Jr., is a former Cincinnati Reds prospect who trained at the Reds' Venezuelan baseball academy. Mr. Tang's father is a surveyor recruited by drilling-services company Multi-Shot LLC to work in Canada.
The other, pitcher Daivis Burguillos, was a prospect of the New York Mets' organization who says he got tangled in the political strife between Caracas and Washington. "I was supposed to get a visa to join the Mets in Port St. Lucie [Fla.]," the 24-year-old Caracas native says. "Because of all the diplomatic fighting, they never got one for me. The Mets released me." (The Mets say Mr. Burguillos was cut for his performance, not due to visa problems.)
At a recent Vipers game, dozens of Venezuelan fans, dressed in bright reds, blues and yellows to match the colors of Venezuela's flag, filled seats along the right field line. "Hip, Hip! Jorge," the Venezuelans shouted in unison, echoing an ESPN TV ad, when Mr. Tang strode to the plate. He went one for four in the game and is hitting .264.
The 20-year-old Mr. Tang says he sees Venezuelan transplants at road games in Edmonton and Winnipeg: "It's like having a family here."
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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Self-censorship by Venezuela media mogul rewarded

Self-censorship by Venezuela media mogul rewarded
Wed Jun 20, 2007 11:47AM EDT
By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

CARACAS (Reuters) - The shutdown of a Venezuelan television station critical of President Hugo Chavez may prove a windfall for the owner of a rival network: millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

The extra income could help media mogul Gustavo Cisernos reclaim his position as Venezuela's richest man, a place he now shares with Lorenzo Mendoza, each with a net worth of $6 billion and at the top of the heap in Venezuela. Mendoza's fortune comes from beer, Cisneros' from a string of media holdings, including the private TV network Venevision. In the Forbes magazine's 2006 billionaires' list, Cisneros was $100 million ahead of Mendoza, and in 2005, close to a billion. "Gustavo wants to be number one, it's really important to him," said a Caracas businessman familiar with the Cisneros family who did not want to be identified. "And now he has an opportunity."

In terms of audience and advertising revenue, Venevision perpetually ran behind RCTV, the country's oldest TV network. For years, both were sharply critical of Chavez, who accused Cisneros and RCTV's director general, Marcel Granier, of involvement in plotting an abortive coup against him in 2002.

What happened since then highlights how part of the Venezuelan elite, many linked through family ties, have learned to coexist and prosper with Chavez despite his plans to bring "21st century socialism" and a classless society to the country.
After a meeting between Chavez and Cisneros brokered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 2004, Venevision dropped its anti-Chavez tone. RCTV stepped it up. In May, the government renewed Venevision's broadcast license for five years and let RCTV's license expire.

The decision drew widespread condemnation in Venezuela and abroad as an assault on the freedom expression. Also at stake: more than a quarter billion dollars a year in advertising money, by most estimates."Overall, the money spent on TV advertising totals around $600 million," Granier said in a recent interview. "We had the biggest share. It's not difficult to guess where that share will go."


Experts say that while it is far too early to get a clear picture on the redistribution of the advertising pie -- RCTV previously took around $280 million of the total -- a survey by the Datos company said 44.7% of those interviewed named Venevision as their favorite TV after RCTV went off the air.

Globovision, a 24-hour news channel which still broadcasts reports critical of the government, came second, with 32.5 percent. Chavez has repeatedly threatened to shut the network down and warned such a decision could be taken independent of when its license lapses.

Despite frosty relations now between Granier and Cisneros, the two are linked by family ties typical in the tight-knit world Chavez often terms "the oligarchy." The two media tycoons are married to cousins -- daughters of the Phelps family whose patriarch founded the conglomerate that embraces RCTV.

Venezuela's web of the wealthy and the well-connected was spotlighted again when Thor Halvorssen, a human rights activist and Chavez opponent, published an op-ed piece in the New York Post. It contrasted Cisneros and Granier in "a tale of two Venezuelan media kings -- one heroic, one craven." Reflecting opposition views widely heard in Venezuela, the piece portrayed Cisneros as a villain, a man in deep collusion with Chavez who changed his network's course toward "entirely rosy coverage of government activities."

Cisneros's response came in the form of a reader's letter to the New York Post denying there had been a Carter-brokered deal. The letter was signed by Antonieta Lopez, vice president corporate affairs of the Cisneros Group.
She is Halvorssen's aunt and godmother. They are distant relatives of the beer billionaire who shares the title of Venezuela's richest man with Cisneros.

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