Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Venezuela's response to shortages increasingly militarized (July 13, 2016)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is turning to the military to help combat the country's increasing food shortages. 

Yesterday he announced the creation of the Great Mission of Sovereign Supply, which will be headed by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino. As part of the initiative, control of the country's five biggest ports was handed over to the military yesterday, reports the Associated Press.

It means yet more power for the armed forces, which already are involved state-run food import companies, the country's largest bank, television station and state-run mining company, according to the Wall Street Journal. Under the new system, all ministries and state institutions will be at the service of the mission. The move minimizes the influence of other government officials, such as Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz, Industry Minister Miguel Pérez Abad and other ministers who held various economic roles, according to the WSJ.

Food trucked directly to the country's poorest, largely under military supervision, is one of the measures already in place to combat shortages, reports Bloomberg. Opposition leaders say the trucks cater to government supporters. In the meantime, the government argues that looting is a tool used by its foes to undermine the administration.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence estimates there are more than ten incidents of looting each day, notes an Al Jazeera piece that goes in-depth on the shortages.

In an interview last week with NPR, WOLA's David Smilde notes the increasing scarcity of basic goods is exacerbating inequalities: the most affected are the population at the lowest socioeconomic levels, while a minority of the country's citizens with access to dollars are relatively unaffected.

The population is increasingly restless, according to a new study by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, which found that protests in the first six months of this year increased by 24 percent over those in the same period of 2015.

The country's border with Colombia is officially closed, but contraband trucks -- some even escorted by Venezuelan National Guard soldiers -- about, according to an NPR piece. The border closure a year ago reversed the course of smuggled goods. Previously, government subsidized goods were smuggled from Venezuela to Colombia, where they were resold at a profit. Now the shortages have led to goods being smuggled from Colombia, where they can be obtained, and resold in Venezuela.

TeleSUR piece reports on another initiative targeting shortages: agricultural communes. Though their leaders are determined to avoid the pitfalls that led to the failure of tens of thousands of communes under President Hugo Chavez's administration a decade ago, they face cash and infrastructure difficulties that undermine their attempts to counter Venezuela's production shortages.

On an international level, Venezuela is facing increasing pressure to reform. Mercosur countries have decided to postpone passing on the trade bloc's pro-tempore presidency to Venezuela, pending it's adoption of tariffs and commercial and legal rules, reports Folha de S. Paulo. But some Mercosur countries said Venezuela will have to make concrete gestures towards human rights and democracy in order to receive the presidency, according to MercoPress. Though Paraguay and Brazil are making these demands, all Mercosur countries are not in agreement, and Uruguay insists on handing over the presidency as scheduled. (See Monday's briefs.)

On another Venezuela note, the country's oil production has plunged, an anomaly at a point when most OPEC countries have increased production, according to CNN. As Venezuela's oil accounts for 96 percent of its exports, the declines could worsen the already dire currency shortage for vital imports.The International Energy Agency said output is down to 2.18 million barrels a day, down 240,000 barrels a day from a year earlier and the lowest since an oil workers' strike in February 2003, according to Bloomberg.

News Briefs
  • Correction: Lawyer Néstor Humberto Martínez was chosen as Colombia's new attorney general by the country's Supreme Court. Yesterday's briefing incorrectly said he was chosen as Honduras' new attorney general.
  • The case Ronald James Wooden, an American tortured by Mexican police is unique because of the victim's nationality, but also because he's won a court order for a criminal investigation into the beating, reports the New York Times. The case illustrates the difficulties in battling police impunity in a country where thousands of torture complaints go uninvestigated and unpunished.
  • Mexico's ruling PRI named a young technocrat party president yesterday. Enrique Ochoa, a former government official and constitutional law professor, took office yesterday for three years, pledging party renewal and transparency. The move positions him as a potential candidate in the 2018 elections, according to the Wall Street Journal. With no clear candidate, Ochoa's test will be next year’s elections in the central state of Mexico, the home state of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the states of Nayarit and Coahuila.
  • About half a million Americans have enrolled in Mexico's school system since 2010, part of a rising wave of deportations and voluntary repatriations, reports the Guardian. The U.S.-born children of Mexican migrants often face culture shock and language difficulties, particularly those who return to poorer indigenous communities.
  • Americans who are flocking to Cuba -- though they are still technically barred from traveling as tourists -- are shaking the tourism industry as well as the island economy, reports the Wall Street Journal. Obama strategists are betting that "the money Americans spend on bed-and-breakfasts, taxis, meals in privately owned restaurants and other services will nurture Cuba’s nascent urban middle class and accelerate political and economic change." The Cuban government, on the other hand, is betting the money will boost the economy and ease pressure for deeper political reform, according to the piece.
  • A new private marketing company survey has found that most Cubans earn much more than the official monthly average salary. More than half of Cubans in a survey reported incomes between $50 and $200, more than double the official average wage of $25, reports the Miami Herald. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that many Cubans have jobs on the side, while thousands more have joined the ranks of the entrepreneurial "cuentapropistas," opening up opportunities for higher earnings.
  • Colombia's experience of the Zika epidemic offers a more hopeful reading of its possible effects. While nearly 100,000 cases have been reported, including more than 17,000 pregnant women, the epidemic has not produced the increase in fetal deformities witnessed in Brazil, reports the Washington Post. While Brazilian authorities say the virus is responsible for 1,600 cases of fetal microcephaly, and are investigating another 3,000, Colombian authorities say there have been less than 18 cases of Zika-related microcephaly. Colombia is the country with the second-highest recorded rate of Zika infection, but the most comprehensive monitoring system, notes the piece. Nonetheless, experts expect an increase as women who were infected early in their pregnancies give birth in coming months. 
  • The Guardian has a series of first-hand accounts from Rio favela residents ahead of the upcoming Olympics. Maré resident Thaís Calvacante writes about police violence: "the crack of gunfire that I hear means casualties. Every sound is a loss. And with every loss, less hope. ... Violence in the favela has become trivialized." Another writer focuses on the segregation faced by some of the city's residents with Olympics infrastructure. "The extension of Metro Line 4, which will finally give Rocinha residents a subway station, has been delayed – and when it does open, we will not initially be allowed to use it because priority will be given to Olympic pass holders, including athletes, organizers and tourists. Only after the Olympic and Paralympic Games have ended will locals get to travel on the line," writes Michel Silva.
  • Brazil's suspended president Dilma Rousseff could still wriggle out of impeachment in an upcoming Senate vote, according to her mentor and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reports AFP. A bloc of 36 senators has formed in opposition to impeachment, with some conditioning their vote on a referendum to decide whether to have early presidential elections, notes CEPR's Marc Weisbrot. Impeachment will require a two thirds majority in the upper chamber, 54 of the 81 senators.
  • Peruvian president-elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will name Gonzalo Tamayo to lead the energy and mining ministry, reports Reuters. The economist for a local consulting firm inherits a difficult panorama: low commodity prices have hit the sector hard, and two major projects were derailed by popular protest. Reuters also says that Elsa Galarza, an economist and the head of the research unit at Lima's University of the Pacific, will be named environment minister. The full cabinet is expected to be announced on Friday.
  • New York Times series on memorable obituaries features that of Frida Kahlo, who died 62 years ago today. "...One of Mexico’s most important artists, understood the power of a selfie well before it became a pervasive part of popular culture. Kahlo’s paintings often shifted the viewer’s perspective beyond her self-portraits to offer personal and societal commentary, both subtle and overt."

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